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GOP Book Bans and Democratic Divestment Both Created Crisis for Public Libraries

The current battle over libraries doesn’t tell the larger truth about decades of disinvestment by both parties.

Children read a book at Riverside Main Library in downtown Riverside, California, on January 31, 2023.

On July 31, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) announced plans to repurpose 28 libraries into “discipline centers,” sparking widespread protest. Mayor Sylvester Turner denounced the plan for producing “a school district of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’,” where students in low-income schools will have “no place to go to their school library, to study, to check out a book, get the assistance of a librarian and expand their own imagination.” Students who misbehave in class would be removed from their classrooms and sent to the “discipline centers” to watch virtual lessons. While Mayor Turner stated, “I don’t want HISD schools to look like prisons,” this can only be seen as a blatant expansion of the school-to-prison pipeline at the expense of libraries and learning.

The 28 schools slated to lose their libraries and librarians are all participants in the New Education System (NES), a program implemented by Superintendent Mike Miles following a state takeover of Houston’s schools. National organizations including the American Association of School Librarians and PEN America chimed in to register severe concern about the plan, while the Texas Library Association pushed back against the decision, saying it means “dismantling effective school library programs and removing school librarians at schools that need those essential educators and services the most.”

The Houston school library fight is the latest front in the ongoing struggle to protect the right to read in the state. HB 900, a bill meant to remove what Texas Republicans call “sexually explicit” materials from school libraries, was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year and is set to take effect September 1. (When Abbott signed the bill in June, he said, “Some school libraries have books with sexually explicit and vulgar materials. I’m signing a law that gets that trash out of our schools.”) The new law is already increasing the volume of challenges and book removals, including in Katy Independent School District, the site of significant student organizing last year. In response, at the federal level, Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) introduced the Right to Read Act last year and reintroduced it this April. According to the American Library Association, the bill would “ensure all students, including low-income and minority students, children with disabilities, and English language learners, have access to an effective school library staffed by a certified school librarian [and] [reaffirm] that First Amendment rights apply to school libraries, in response to the growing trend of book bans.”

For families in Houston, statewide efforts to purge school libraries coincide with the state takeover of the city’s school district, which the Houston Federation of Teachers has called “reckless experiment,” producing a particularly challenging environment for organizers in this reliably Democrat-leaning city. And while it can be tempting to point to the problems facing Houston schools as linked to Republican legislation and governance, the problem of disinvestment in libraries doesn’t belong to a single party.

Prior to state control, the school district faced significant equity issues linked to school libraries. According to the group HISD Kids Need Libraries, 30 percent of schools in the district lacked well-resourced, staffed libraries. The problem is mirrored in other blue strongholds, including New York City, where, despite a Chancellor’s regulation requiring school libraries, only a minority of schools can boast such facilities. Disinvestment in school libraries is a distinctly non-partisan issue.

And it’s not just schools. When he was mayor of Newark, New Jersey, in 2010, Democrat Cory Booker slashed public library funding, closing three branches altogether, reducing hours at those that survived, and furloughing library staff for 15 weeks, resulting in pay cuts of 40 percent. The same year, Ed Rendell, the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, stripped 21 percent of the state budget for libraries, leading to huge cuts in collections budgets and replacing many full-time library workers with part-time and volunteer staff. The next year, Rendell cut libraries’ budgets by another 9 percent. And in New York City, public libraries faced down $36 million in cuts proposed by Democrat Eric Adams in the latest budget cycle, in what has come to be an annual ritual leaving activists fighting against cuts rather than for greater investments. As with Houston’s diversion of library spaces to “discipline,” in New York, the proposed library cuts were in contrast to billions of dollars for NYPD overtime and raises.

The current politicization of libraries is often cast as a party line battle: Democratic legislators line up against book bans while Republicans argue for a parental right to control the books to which children have access, with each side scoring points and votes. While this analysis may hold for individual pitched battles, it doesn’t tell the larger truth about disinvestment in the public that both parties have promoted for decades. Earlier this year, for example, Missouri’s Republican government attempted to pass a budget that cut $4.5 million from public libraries, which was unsuccessful only due to overwhelming efforts by library and free speech advocates; the Missouri legislature’s reasoning may be different from Eric Adams’s or Cory Booker’s, but the outcome is the same. Unequal access to school library resources and services didn’t begin with Governor Abbott’s takeover of Houston schools and it won’t end with Democratic legislative control. What’s required is commitment across the political spectrum to expanding public institutions so that they can better meet the needs of the people they serve.

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