The Wealth Gap: A Tale of Two School Libraries

Some might call it a tale of two school libraries, one rich, one poor.

In upper Northwest Washington, some 720 students at Lafayette Elementary School can enjoy 28,000 books on two floors.

But the approximately 170 children of Drew Elementary School must make do with a mere 300 catalogued books.

The book divide just might be of interest to First Lady Michelle Obama, who hosted some of the Drew kids at a “Let’s Read! Let’s Move!” event captured in a YouTube.

The library counts come from a Washington Post article headlined Unequal shelves in D.C. school libraries benefit wealthier students. Here’s the source information from Mackin Educational Resources.

“As of January 2014,” the Post says, “22 percent of D.C. public school students attended a school with a library that had fewer than 10 books per student, and 17 percent of students went to schools with more than 30 books per student, according to an analysis of a school-by-school report on library collections….

“An oft-used national standard is 20 books per student.”

D.C., as I see it, is like any other place. Richer parents can donate more to schools—and often compete better for tax dollars for their children’s educations.

Furthermore, how about the differences between richer and poorer states? Should a poor child be penalized for living in a state where public education isn’t the highest of priorities, and where the pot of tax money per capita isn’t that big to begin with?

Clearly philanthropists and policymakers of all political stripes need to start thinking about a national digital library endowment, and the inherent economies of e-books could help stretch resources.

A Post photo caption says it all: “Campuses with the most books are often the ones with the most resources and most literate students.” And, yes, in regard to “most literate” we are talking to a great extent about cause-effect.

“The reading proficiency rate for poor students,” says the Post, “was 37 percent last year, almost unchanged since 2008 despite intensive reforms.”

I looked at some 2013-2014 statistics for Lafayette and Drew. Twenty-nine percent of the Lafayette students read at an “advanced” level, just two percent of the Drew children. Ninety-eight percent of Drew students are African-American, and 99 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Lafayette is overwhelmingly white, and a mere two percent of the kids were “below basic,” compared to 20 percent among the disadvantaged students at Drew.

“The D.C. school system,” the Post notes, “has invested in literacy coaches, new curriculum, mentors, professional development and digital books. It has put millions of dollars into smaller book collections inside classrooms to help children learn to read. But some advocates are concerned that the District has not made a bigger investment in a more old-fashioned approach: library books.”

According to the report, as paraphrased in the Post, “most elementary schools have an average collection that is at least 15 years old, far older than the students enrolled.” Needless to say, digital collections would be far easier to keep up to date than the paper variety.

Editor’s note: republished with permission of librarycity.

Posted in: Libraries & Librarians