Target Corp. today announced plans to help 42 elementary schools give their libraries a "makeover," part of the retail giant's efforts to help improve K-3 literacy in communities across the country.
Since 2007, Target has completed work on 76 similar efforts to transform school libraries nationwide. The announcement Tuesday at the Library of Congress follows Target's announcement last September of new plans to provide more than $500 million by 2015 to improve education.
It also comes, however, at a grim time for many school library advocates. As part of a federal budget pact ironed out in Washington last month, lawmakers and President Barack Obama agreed to wipe out funding for the $19 million Improving Literacy Through School Libraries program at the U.S. Department of Education.
Each of Target's makeovers involves what the company calls a "complete renovation" that includes light construction, eco-friendly design elements, technology upgrades, and other improvements. Also, each library gets 2,000 new books, and each student and his or her siblings receive seven books to take home.
Laysha Ward, Target's president of community relations, says the focus on elementary school libraries reinforces Target's commitment to improving K-3 literacy in the United States. The retailer's goal, she said, is to help ensure that all students read proficiently by the end of the 3rd grade, "to get them on the pathway to graduation, and are ready for college, career, and ultimately life."
It's interesting to note that the very first person quoted in the Target press release issued today was none other than U.S. Rep. John Kline, the Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee. On one hand, it makes sense, given his role in Congress and the fact that he's from Minnesota, the home base of Target.
But his comments might raise some eyebrows among the school library crowd.
"In order to give our students a competitive advantage and ensure our country remains globally competitive, it is critical for us to invest in education," he is quoted as saying in the press release.
Rep. Kline has been a vocal proponent of recent efforts to reduce federal spending, including for education. As part of that push, he supported the budget compromise to zero out funding for the Literacy Through School Libraries Program. Further, he is the co-sponsor of a Republican bill that would altogether strip out of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act a host of "wasteful" programs, including the one for school libraries.
Here's what Rep. Kline said in a May 13 press release announcing that bill:
"Clearly, the problem isn't how much money we spend on education, but how we're spending itand right now, far too many taxpayer dollars are dedicated to ineffective, redundant K-12 programs," he said.
Librarians might be known for urging people to lower their voices, but I should add here that just last week, a national group representing them seemed intent on broadcasting loud and clear its dismay with the budget plan that killed funding for the program. And it singled out the president himself for criticism on this point.
"This decision shows that school libraries have been abandoned by President Obama and the Department of Education," said Emily Sheketoff, the executive director of the American Library Association's Washington office. "Withdrawing support from this crucial area of education is an astounding misstep by an administration that purports to be a champion of education reform."
The federal program, I should mention, is designed to help school districts improve reading achievement by providing students with increased access to up-to-date school library materials; well-equipped, technologically advanced school library media centers; and professionally certified school library media specialists.
But I digress. Back to Target's plans.
The latest list of schools to get library makeovers from the Target initiativea partnership with the Heart of America Foundationspans 30 states and the District of Columbia, from Huntsville, Ala., to Kansas City, Kan., to Fresno, Calif. The schools were selected based on a variety of criteria, including having a significant population of students from low-income families.
The average cost for the school makeovers is about $200,000, said Ward, the Target president of community relations.
That estimate does not include, however, one additional element, she said, called Meals for Minds, which provides a school-based food pantry. Target will incorporate such a food pantry in each of the 42 schools, where needy students and their families may choose from a variety of food staples and fresh produce to bring home.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, Target committed $6 million over the next three years to the Minneapolis public schools for reading initiatives.
I asked Ward more broadly about Target's emphasis on education, an area in which the company has long provided support and now is ramping up its work.
She explained (and keep in mind that a "guest" in the Target lexicon is what most of us call a customer): "Our guests tell us that education is the number-one social priority for them, and primarily K-12, and so it's within that context and the community needs assessment that our philanthropic strategy has evolved to make education the centerpiece."
Moments after posting this item, I heard back from Alexandra Sollberger, the communications director for the House Education and the Workforce Committee. (Full disclosure: I did not provide the communications team with as much time to respond as I would have liked, and appreciated their rapid reply.)
"In the quote you mentioned [from the Target press release], Chairman Kline is referring to community and private sector investment in educationspecifically Target's School Library Makeover initiative," Sollberger wrote in an email. "Chairman Kline is critical of the lack of return on federal education spending. That's exactly why he has been so supportive of efforts by private organizations such as Target and the Heart of America Foundation to invest in children and communities across the nation."