Librarians and Legislators
Getting New Jersey’s S588 from bill to law was an education in the legislative process. The work to enlist sponsors for the information literacy standard would get underway as each new legislative session started. NJASL’s president, with the guidance of our legislative consultant, would reach out to key legislators trying to get the bill on the Senate and Assembly Education Committee agendas. Up until 2021, the bill would be introduced, be referred to the respective Education Committees and then would go no further.
COVID brought us many challenges, but it also closed the statehouse and legislative offices to visitors. Legislator office hours moved online and NJASL took advantage of this opportunity to schedule meetings with senators and representatives. The NJASL Advocacy Committee would send emails to the membership requesting participation from residents or employees in specific legislator’s districts. NJASL recognized the value legislators place on constituent input and we worked hard to include both quantitative (number of school libraries and staffing) and qualitative examples for the data in our presentations.
As we spoke with these legislators, it became clear that many had not stepped into a school library in decades and they had no idea what a dynamic school library looked like today. One legislator did not understand the difference between public and school librarians, which led to NJASL and NJLA to partner on a document comparing and contrasting the two positions. As we refined our presentations we made sure to include the many different roles of a school librarian and the integral role they play in student achievement. We shared that there have been decades of studies that have shown a correlation between well-funded strong school libraries staffed by certified school librarians and student success. We emphasized the need for our students to graduate as information-literate digital citizens. Both the information literacy standard bill and the school librarian:student ratio bill were discussed and we were able to gather more sponsors after these meetings.
The Game Changer
One meeting in particular changed everything. Senator Michael Testa (R LD1) had reached out to NJASL about a vanity license plate supporting libraries. New Jersey residents are able to pay extra for “dedicated plates” to show their support of a particular cause, such as organ donation or wildlife preservation. Of course, NJASL loved this idea and we asked if we could meet with Senator Testa to discuss how to make this happen. During this meeting we took the opportunity to discuss the state of school libraries in NJ and the related school library legislative bills. Senator Testa represents a district that struggles with literacy rates and many residents do not have access to broadband. Through our discussion, it was clear Senator Testa understood the value of both public and school libraries. Shortly after our meeting, he introduced the Senate version of the information literacy bill. As an influential voice in the New Jersey Senate, we knew his prime sponsorship of the bill would encourage many other GOP legislators to support it as well and we began to contact legislative offices to ask for co-sponsors. We continued to conduct one-on-one meetings with legislators or their staffers. In the summer of 2021, on the advice of NJEA’s Assistant Director of Government Affairs Fran Pfeffer, we held two open houses where we invited all of New Jersey’s senators and representatives to discuss school libraries and the bills. We started to see more sponsorship than we ever had and the Senate version of the bill at that time (S3464) and its companion assembly bill, A248, became a solidly bipartisan bill.
Correcting Misconceptions About School Libraries
During this time, there was an opportunity in April 2021 for the various public worker unions, including NJEA, to attend a town hall with Governor Phil Murphy. NJASL sent an eBlast to our membership asking for there to be a strong showing of school librarians on this call, especially since it was taking place during School Library Month. The staffer who was facilitating the town hall took notice of the school librarians’ presence in the chat and asked Governor Murphy if he wanted to say anything to commemorate School Library Month. His response was a joke featuring a shushing librarian and his follow-up was a statement about how this generation didn’t value libraries the way previous generations had and he didn’t think his own children ever used their school libraries. In response, the chat exploded with responses from school and public librarians. NJASL President Beth Thomas also responded in the chat with a link to an article about library usage that disputed Governor Murphy’s assessment of Americans’ views onlibraries and how school librarians were serving New Jersey’s students amidst the challenges of COVID-19. This led the staffer, Dr. Deborah Cornavaca, to share her email and NJASL immediately reached out to ask for a meeting.
During this meeting we learned that Dr. Cornavaca had been a trustee of her public library and had a deep understanding of the library ecosystem, how interconnected libraries are, and she was aware of the school librarian job cuts we had been seeing in New Jersey since the recession. Dr. Cornavaca recommended that we connect with stakeholder groups and put us in contact with the New Jersey Urban Mayors Policy Center . She recommended we submit an article for their newsletter about school libraries in urban districts. We enlisted the help of one of our members, Newark Public Schools librarian Margaret Adjoga-Otu, and an article “Newark School Library Media Specialists Lead the Way to Assist Students” was published in their Fall 2021 newsletter.
Building Our Coalition
Our work with EveryLibrary had enabled us to recognize the importance of coalition-building and we continued to reach out to powerful stakeholder groups who have a voice in Trenton, such as Garden State Coalition of Schools, Save Our Schools NJ, The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, New Jersey School Boards Association, New Jersey State School Nurses Association, and CS4NJ, the computer science coalition. The connection with the school nurses association made sense because of the ever-evolving information landscape regarding COVID and the connection with the Computer Science coalition came about in the Spring of 2021. The executive director at the time, Daryl Detrick, reached out to NJASL to see if we could partner with them to help implement the new Computer Science standards at the K-8 level since a special certification was not required. Detrick’s wife is a K-8 school librarian and he had a strong understanding of the many different hats school librarians wear. Those of us who graduated from the Rutgers Information Science program were required to take a computer programming course. Many of us also work with every student in our building and Detrick recognized that K-8 school librarians could be effective school-wide teachers of computer literacy and computational thinking. Many NJASL members had already built technology standards into their curriculum, were running coding clubs, or had coding and robotics as part of Maker programming.
Persistence Pays Off
Our next goal in 2021 was getting S3464 (the bill number during 2020-21) on the agenda of Senate and Assembly Education Committee meetings. We worked with EveryLibrary, who created digital petitions to get the bill on the radar of legislators who were on those committees. NJASL also encouraged members who lived in these legislators’ districts to contact their offices directly. The Senate was first in posting the bill to the Education Committee agenda. Fran Pfeffer, Associate Director of NJEA’s Office of Government Affairs, testified at this hearing. The bill was passed favorably out of committee. NJASL’s first success with the information literacy bill. However, because this was the end of the 2020-21 legislative session, NJASL was not able to move the bill forward and we had to begin again in the 2022 legislative session. NJASL was made aware that changes needed to be made to the bill. Under Fran Pfeffer’s guidance, we worked with Senator Testa’s office to make amendments to the bill changing it from requiring an information literacy curriculum to a standard. The amended bill was posted for another hearing in the Senate Education Committee in June 2022. NJASL’s President-Elect Ewa Dziedzic-Elliott and Media Literacy Now New Jersey Chapter Leader Olga Polites, and NJEA’s Fran Pfeffer all testified. It again passed through the Senate Education committee and was approved by the full Senate in June 2022.
The next step was to get the bill through the Assembly Education Committee. Petitions were created so members, friends, and family could contact their legislators with just a few clicks. Members who lived in committee members’ legislative districts were encouraged to call their offices. So many did that the Assembly Speaker, Craig Coughlin, reached out to Fran Pfeffer to let her know it would be posted to the agenda and we could stop calling the legislators’ offices. The Assembly version of the bill was heard by the Assembly Education Committee on Sept.22 and was favorably passed from this committee. However, the process of getting the Assembly version of the bill to the Assembly Education Committee began prior to new amendments that the Governor’s office was asking for. Amendments were discussed with NJASL and with NJEA’s Fran Pfeffer working with the Governor’s office, the final version of S588 was brokered. This required the bill to pass through the Assembly Science, Innovation, and Technology Committee in order to reconcile the two Senate and Assembly versions into the final version of S588. NJASL was again present to testify and the bill passed out of committee. It went to the full Assembly for a vote on October 27, 2022 and received an affirmative vote in the Assembly. However, unlike the Senate vote which was unanimous, there was a small group of Assembly members who felt that the bill would lead to schools telling students what to think. Fortunately, one of the prime sponsors of the bill, Assemblyman Daniel R. Benson (LD14) was able to eloquently speak to the need for information literacy due to the mass of information that students face on a daily basis. Thankfully, the opposition was small and having bipartisan support for the bill meant that the majority of legislators voted to approve the bill.
As a formality the bill went back to the Senate for a vote to concur with the Assembly amendments. Finally, S588 was approved by both Assembly and Senate, November 11, 2022.
Now that the bill had made it through the Senate and Assembly, we needed to get it to Governor Murphy’s desk. NJEA’s Fran Pfeffer helped to navigate this process and had meetings and discussions with the Governor’s office to ensure the Governor’s final support for the bill. We were told Murphy was supportive of the bill, but had no idea if and when he would sign it into law. Finally, after seven years of advocacy, we were alerted on January 4, 2023 that it had been signed. This was done with very little fanfare – a press release was issued. It misnamed information literacy as media literacy, but was corrected after NJASL reached out. So many education-related bills have been signed at press conferences set in school libraries and we were disappointed that this past practice was not utilized for a bill that was actually related to school libraries Despite the quiet announcement, news outlets quickly caught on and started to report that New Jersey was the first state in the nation to mandate media literacy K-12. Although the governor’s office had corrected the terminology in their press release, it was not an immediate correction and the phrase had already taken hold. Other states, including Delaware, had already mandated K-12 media literacy. As certain news sources started to twist the purpose of the bill into a nefarious attempt to brainwash students, it soon became clear that we were going to need help with our PR efforts. Our next post will delve into how we reached out to other organizations to help us with our messaging and the steps NJASL has been taking to ensure our inclusion in the standard-writing process with the New Jersey Department of Education.
Author: Beth Thomas & Tricina Strong-Beebe
Beth Thomas is a School Library Media Specialist at Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School in Summit, NJ. She is a Past President of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians and is a member of the Advocacy Committee. Beth also serves on the AASL Practice Committee.
Tricina Strong-Beebe is a School Library Media Specialist at Hainesport Township Elementary School in Burlington County, New Jersey. Strong-Beebe has been working in the role of Advocacy Chair for New Jersey Association of School Librarians since 2018. Strong-Beebe is a member of NJASL’s EDI committee.