April 12, 2019
Two weeks ago, about 60 librarians from 11 library systems across the state of Maryland gathered for a workshop at the Largo-Kettering Public Library. Their task was to hone their skills as curators and literacy experts while embracing an increasingly important role: supporting families and students to become more skilled, more selective, and more empowered users of media and technology.
It is the kind of program that attracts supporters across the political spectrum, in part because it is built on American values: creating opportunities for anyone, anywhere, to have the chance to learn and grow. These librarians are public servants working to update their skills so they can create more opportunities for members of their communities who also want to acquire new skills and raise their children to be strong readers and literate citizens in the 21st century.
But this program currently has a target on its back: Its funding comes from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which is slated for elimination in President Trump’s budget, proposed last month.
In fact, the Trump budget eliminates many other education programs as well, such as those run by the U.S. Department of Education to provide teacher training under Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Also on the chopping block are Title IV programs that often provide digital literacy training and mentorship, including the $1.2 billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) program, which funds out-of-school-time programs in high-poverty schools. (See our earlier blog post on the implications of the 2020 budget proposal here.)
The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is the federal agency responsible for distributing funds authorized by the Library Services and Technology Act, which was enacted in 1996. Last year at this time, funding for IMLS was also on the chopping block, but Congress disregarded the President’s request and eventually approved funding of $242 million, a $2 million increase from the year before.
The program that funded the Maryland initiative—known as the Peer-Coaching Media Mentorship Training program, which New America helped to start last year—is funded by the state of Maryland via IMLS. For the past two years, despite the Trump Administration’s desire to cut the agency, IMLS has received funding from Congress and, in this particular Grants to States program, has disbursed approximately $161 million each year directly to states to use for library services and technology initiatives across their populations. (Here’s a breakdown of the last three years of IMLS appropriations.)
Congress has the chance to make the same call for the coming fiscal year. The question for lawmakers is: Why would we cut these programs at a time of heightened urgency over digital citizenship, media literacy, and skill-building for 21st century jobs?
In its budget justifications, the White House says that the cuts are appropriate because states and local governments, as well as private companies and non-profits, can fill in the holes without the need for federal government involvement, and calls out online donation-seeking platforms such as Kickstarter as solutions. At New America, we see states already struggling to pay for quality programs in schools and libraries and believe that relying on private donations is an unreasonable expectation. Asking small nonprofits to find the time and capacity to raise hundreds of millions of dollars each year through individual online donations seems like a unrealistic and especially burdensome task, and individual Americans are already awash in constant solicitations for donations to nonprofits to help schools and libraries.
It may be several months before lawmakers vote on whether to keep federal funding for IMLS and other programs that foster media and digital literacy across our libraries, museums, and afterschool programs. This week, according to Politico, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House speaker Nancy Pelosi came to an agreement to work together to avoid budget caps that would hit both defense and domestic programs. Meanwhile, appropriations committees on both houses are starting to put together their plans for fiscal year 2020 spending, which may look nothing like what President Trump and his team have proposed.
For librarians and educators around the country, there is a strong hope that Congress will disregard Trump’s proposal to cut federal library funding and instead fund IMLS at a similar or higher level than last year. If so, states can look to programs like Maryland’s as a model for helping librarians become media mentors who help families and students navigate the Digital Age. The next generation needs the skills to understand and sort through the onslaught of digital information streaming at them every day. Library programs are a key part of the answer.