By Cristal Nichols
Master Math Teacher, Detroit Public Schools
When I recently asked my middle school students who their favorite author was, they said, “We don’t read.”
I wanted to cry. I attended Detroit Public Schools and I can still remember the joy I felt going to the school library on Mondays and Wednesdays and getting the latest “Encyclopedia Brown” or Beverly Cleary book to read for the week. Reading was my escape; I could learn about other places and people, and it helped me believe that anything was possible. As I read, my reading comprehension and school grades improved.
This is not the case for many schoolchildren in my city, especially low-income students, and students of color, who no longer have access to a school library. It is not a coincidence that Detroit Public School districts’ students fall below the state’s reading scores’ average. The neighborhood branch libraries are also closing due to budget cuts and financial restraints. At its inception in 1921, Detroit Public Library had 31 branch libraries; in recent years, 10 branches have closed, seven due to financial issues.
Currently, the library at my school sits dormant. The books are unorganized and scattered everywhere. The school administrators have no plans for revitalizing the library or hiring a librarian or media specialist to allow students to integrate technology and media services into their current studies. Our younger students have never experienced the joy of sitting together in the library and enjoying great storytelling or the opportunity to explore books on diverse topics.
This is the unfortunate reality in a state that is one of the worst in the nation when it comes to investing in low-income students.
In every recent education budget, low-income students have not received the 11.5% of additional funding the law promises them—which means that these students have lost out on millions of dollars over the years. And even if they did receive 11.5% additional funding each year, that would still be far below what national research recommends and what other states are investing in their low-income students. Low-income students in our state already shoulder the burden of inequitable school funding such as dilapidated school buildings, teacher shortages, fewer academic course offerings, and limited extracurricular activities.
Our state must take significant steps towards building a more equitable school funding system in order to meet the needs of its students. Having a more equitable school system would help restore our school libraries and give other educational resources—such as access to librarians, new books, and computers—back to students who desperately need them.
The good news is that Governor Whitmer has proposed a crucial step towards improving funding equity in Michigan: Her budget proposal calls for allocating $746.5 million for economically disadvantaged students, which would provide low-income students the 11.5% they are promised yet haven’t received in years past. This would be a historic step in the right direction and end the annual practice of shortchanging Michigan’s most underserved students.
The Governor also made a recommendation to remove the language in Sec 31a(15) of the School Aid Fund that specifies when cuts to at-risk funding must be made. This change will make clear that at-risk funding should not be targeted when there is a budget shortfall.
The legislature should support these important proposals. If all of our students received the dollars they need and deserve, then all of our students would also be able to enjoy media services that would help them to compete in today’s global economy, not just those in wealthy school districts. Bringing new materials and books into the library at my school could spark a renewed interest in reading and technology, ushering my students into future careers as graphic artists, computer technicians, authors, and scientists, to name a few of the multiple career opportunities access to technology inspires and promotes.
House Bill 4664, introduced by Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth), mandates that all public schools have a library that houses books supportive of the curriculum, is open and accessible to students and their families at flexible times, and participates in an interlibrary loan program. This is also a good start to improving access to library services and books across the state. In addition to improving funding equity in Michigan, we must also ensure that dollars are used to support proposals that would reopen our school libraries with new books, technology, and up-to-date media resources. Detroit and other urban districts in Michigan need the resources to fund and support media centers and libraries for all students, and especially low-income students, as well as to hire back librarians and media specialists.
Every child should be able to experience the wonderful benefits that books bring into our lives, to relate, escape, dream, and soar. Let’s invest more in our students beginning with this year’s state budget. Maybe then, the next time I ask my students, “Who is your favorite author,” they will truly have the name of someone they enjoy reading, as much as I did.
Cristal Nichols is a math master teacher in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. She is a member of the inaugural Michigan Teacher Leadership Collaborative, a program for highly effective, equity-minded teachers co-convened by The Education Trust-Midwest and Teach Plus.