Anyone who spends a moment studying the Fort Worth school district knows that pitiable levels of reading skills should be its highest priority. Business and political leaders, school board candidates and education analysts all know that if the current situation — barely one-quarter of third-graders can read on grade level — continues, the fallout will be felt for decades.
Someone should tell FWISD principals. Or at least remind many of them that developing readership requires, you know, books.
A recent Star-Telegram analysis found wide disparity in spending at the campus level on library books. The result is that at a typical elementary school, most books are at least 16 years old. More than half of schools spend less than $8 per student on their libraries, the minimum recommended by district administrators.
Most principals have long lists of needs and priorities, and budgets stretch only so far. Site-based management is a time-honored concept; we want strong principals who know their teachers and students best deciding how to allocate resources.
But the fact that books fell so far down the list for some, including many in the schools where students need reading help the most, is a failure of focus, accountability and common sense.
FWISD leaders understand the reading crisis the district faces and how the pandemic only made it worse. At every grade from 3 through 8, STAAR test scores were worse in 2021 than the previous test in 2019. Fort Worth is far from alone in these setbacks, and the district is surging resources toward new student interventions and teacher training. Administrators plan to allocate $2.6 million of federal pandemic relief funds to school libraries, along with more than $800,000 in various parts of the annual budget.
The problem pre-dates COVID-19, and the failure to invest in libraries shows a lack of seriousness about it. Research has verified the benefits of well-stocked libraries for children. Those with access to books do better on test scores and overall achievement. And as obvious as it sounds, inculcating a love of reading, or at least the skills for it, is crucial to setting up students, for a life of learning.
Of course, the problem would be less acute if more parents made reading a priority at home. As in many areas, FWISD has to make up for a lack of family attention to education. But principals know how much this is a factor in their schools, and they should account for it.
The good news is that this is a fixable problem. The district is off to a good start with the COVID money, and if a one-time major budget allocation is needed to catch up certain libraries, administrators and trustees should consider it. Frankly, money shouldn’t be an issue — the district raised taxes significantly last year and huge pots of COVID relief dollars are available. Even with the challenges lingering from the pandemic, FWISD and other districts have opportunities for investments.
Going forward, administrators should make libraries a clear priority. Principals should continue to have budgetary flexibility, but those that don’t invest in solving the district’s reading problems should be scrutinized and, if necessary, held accountable for poor choices.
Our school libraries depend on private help, too, and not just the occasional book-fair fundraiser. Fort Worth’s philanthropic community can help get books into more kids’ hands. Several business and community organizations are already doing so, and the more, the better.
With the pandemic and our increasingly screen-based world, technology has been a huge priority that has pulled in school librarians. And while physical books should always be part of the equation, using tech that kids already have and are comfortable with to boost their reading only makes sense.
We should all pause at increasing screen time for children, but if they’re making it through more e-books, that’s a tradeoff we can encourage.