All Arizona K-12 students deserve equitable access to literacy learning. When my grandparents (born around the turn of the 20th century) joined the work force, people who could read and write were considered literate. Nearly a century later, those foundational skills are essential but sorely insufficient. In order to be successful in college, career, and community life, today’s students must be fluent readers, writers, speakers, listeners, and viewers of texts in all formats. They must be able to access, comprehend, evaluate, ethically use and share print and digital information.

Literacy learning opportunities start with ready access to books and technology tools. Families living in poverty are least likely to be able to provide reading materials in their homes. With more than 25 percent of Arizona’s children living in poverty, far too many of our students do not have access to the literacy resources they need.

Students also deserve instruction that prepares them for living and working in an information-rich society. School librarians in a fully funded school library bridge digital divides to ensure youth have access to information and technology. They work with classroom teachers to increase students’ reading proficiency and ability to think critically in order to navigate an unreliable online environment of facts, misinformation and outright lies.

Instruction that was once provided by school librarians is unavailable to most of Arizona’s students. According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Arizona has just 140 public school library staff holding librarian certification, only 57 book titles available per 100 students, and an average school library budget of $960. Clearly, Arizona students suffer from huge gaps in literacy learning opportunities.

In 2002- 2003, there were 105 schools with 96 state-certified school librarians serving in Tucson Unified School District school libraries. This school year, there are 86 schools with only 12 state-certified librarians serving in TUSD libraries. With almost a third of all TUSD students living in poverty, this extremely low level of access to school library literacy opportunities is unconscionable.

The Pima County Public Library and literacy-focused nonprofit organizations struggle to fill the gaps. Many children and families are not within walking distance of, or do not have transportation to, the literacy opportunities offered by PCPL. There simply are not enough nonprofit organizations to reach every Tucson-area child and teen in need of literacy learning.

K-12 students attend school 180 days each year. Before and after school and during the school day, they deserve access to a fully funded school library and the teaching expertise of a state-certified school librarian. Arizona’s classroom teachers also deserve to work with a school librarian who will provide them with resources and instructional support to help prepare students for their future.

From Nov. 9 to 11, the American Association of School Librarians’ National Conference will bring about 4,000 school librarians, educators, publishers and guests to Phoenix. Conference participants will focus on key issues in education such as equitable access to information, technology tools, and literacy learning opportunities that include digital, financial, scientific, and technology literacies. Arizona’s few remaining school librarians will be learning along with their national colleagues.

If Arizona students are to compete successfully in a global society, our Legislature must fulfill its responsibility to fully fund our state’s district public schools. As a first step, let’s start by passing local district school budget overrides.

Let’s work with school districts to rebuild school library programs and rehire state-certified school librarians to lead essential 21st-century learning. As we raise the literacy bar for students, let’s give them and their teachers the support they need to succeed.

Judi Moreillon served as a school librarian in Sunnyside, Tucson Unified and Tanque Verde public school districts. She taught K-8 preservice classroom teachers for Northern Arizona University’s Tucson cohort and graduate students in library science at the University of Arizona and Texas Woman’s University.