Our kids need books

The National Library Legislative Days are April 23-24 at our nation’s capital. While members of the National Library Association are reminding our legislators why libraries are so important, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on why books and libraries are crucial in our children’s public schools.

My daughter is one of the lucky ones. Her elementary school in MPS has one of the best English/Spanish libraries in the state. She lives for books and the library has become her favorite room in the school. However, she doesn’t just spend hours reading.

She also spends time talking about what she reads, and she shares this love of books with her school librarian. My fifth-grader loves to assist the librarian and encourage younger students to become confident readers.

Yet over the past couple years when budget cuts loom, our librarian position is always threatened. We lost our art teacher this year, but because of our very resourceful principal, we held onto our librarian. In year two of the Walker administration’s massive cuts to K-12 education, next year is likely to be even more devastating.

How can we pretend that Wisconsin cares about literacy when it will not ensure that all of our children have access to books, libraries and librarians?

How would my daughter’s elementary school experience have been different without her librarian? I shudder to think about that alternate reality, but it’s precisely the reality that my younger daughter will face as she gets ready for kindergarten.

Why do kids need books? The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance describes many of the reasons: reading books together helps bond parents with kids, builds vocabulary and critical thinking skills, and expands our imaginations and our worlds.

Best of all, with the founding of the Boston Public Library in 1848, books became free.

In 1898, the Milwaukee Public Library followed suit and opened its doors in our city. It’s an outstanding partner to MPS, and it donates an enormous amount of time, energy and resources to students on a daily basis. Many young people would have nowhere else to turn for the resources they need to learn if it wasn’t for their local public library.

Another great partner is the Next Door Foundation, which on a weekly basis conducts a “Books for Kids” collection where community members donate their used books for MPS students.

The efforts of these organizations and others are essential, but they do not relieve our state government from its obligation to ensure that our children have access to books and adequately funded libraries.

Libraries with shelves full of books managed by a librarian should be mandatory in every public school in our state. If we stand by as Gov. Scott Walker and the state legislature continue to hammer MPS with cuts to education, we will see the educational prospects of our children continue to diminish.

We need to rally behind our public schools and students, and call on the state to properly fund education both in Milwaukee and statewide.

It’s time for us to come together around a shared commitment to the children and the future of our city.

This commentary is published on the occasion of MPS Children’s Week. To learn more, visit mpschildrenscampaign.org.

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