First lady Melania Trump called on Dr. Seuss to help her celebrate National Read a Book Day on Sept. 6.
Then things got … complicated.
As the White House had previously announced, a school in each state that had “achieved high standards of excellence” would be receiving a box of 10 books by Dr. Seuss. Achieving “excellence” is a vague benchmark, of course — and one the White House doesn’t define in detail in its press release — but it seemed as though performing well on standardized testing was a key benchmark.
In Massachusetts, that school selected to receive the donated books was Cambridgeport Elementary. The school librarian there, however, wasn’t exactly happy about it.
In a blistering open letter to the first lady published on family reading blog The Horn Book, librarian Liz Phipps Soeiro laid out why she won’t be keeping the books.
Although she said was “honored” by the gift and thanked Trump for the gesture, Soeiro pointed out why students in Cambridge — home to Harvard University, and a community with significant resources to offer its schools — certainly shouldn’t be the ones accepting donated books from Washington when there are many other schools that need the help.
“My students have access to a school library with over nine thousand volumes and a librarian with a graduate degree in library science,” she wrote. “Meanwhile, school libraries around the country are being shuttered.”
Soeiro noted the Trump administration has exacerbated education inequality by appointing Betsy DeVos — whose policies tend to favor students in wealthier or privileged areas, like Cambridge, over those in impoverished rural and urban districts — to run its education department.
“Why not go out of your way to gift books to underfunded and underprivileged communities that continue to be marginalized and maligned by policies put in place by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos?” she wrote.
As you can imagine, Soeiro has faced both support and backlash for the letter.
The first lady responded to Soeiro in a statement from her communications team, suggesting the librarian needlessly made the gift political: “To turn the gesture of sending young students some books into something divisive is unfortunate, but the First Lady remains committed to her efforts on behalf of children everywhere.”
Many online agreed:
This teacher needs a reality check. Playing politics over children’s books is ridiculous.
— Wayne Trendy (@TrendyNewsBits) September 28, 2017
In her letter criticizing Trump, Soeiro also called Dr. Seuss a “bit of a cliché” and noted his work’s well-documented racist undertones — points conservative media seized and panned harshly.
But Soerico certainly has a group of supporters in her corner too — notably, it seems, many Cambridge parents.
CBS Boston reported that many moms and dads picking their kids up from school after the controversy unfolded agreed with Soerico’s motives: “That’s the librarian’s prerogative and I support her decision,” one dad chimed in. “I think the letter is really articulate, constructive in its suggestions,” another told the news outlet.
Whether or not you agree with the librarian’s decision to reject Trump’s gift, one undeniable point in her letter is worth remembering: Public school kids deserve better.
“Cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit are suffering through expansion, privatization, and school ‘choice’ with no interest in outcomes of children, their families, their teachers, and their schools,” Soerico wrote. “Are those kids any less deserving of books simply because of circumstances beyond their control?”
Of course not. And our education policies should reflect that.