Legislation that would require school districts to employ one academic counselor for every 450 students has been introduced in the House, but some educators say the unfunded mandate would pressure districts into making drastic and expensive changes.
Districts statewide are “woefully understaffed” with counselors, said Jennifer Smith, the director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards.
Nationwide, Michigan trailed only Arizona and California for the nation’s highest student-to-counselor ratio for the 2014-15 school year, with each counselor managing an average of 729 students, according to the American School Counselor Association.
That’s a problem because school counselors provide essential services like class scheduling and college application assistance, Smith said. Furthermore, they can direct students to career opportunities outside of the postsecondary realm, like technical education or dual-enrollment programs.
“Not all kids are four-year-college bound, and even if you are, you need someone to talk to to see if you’re going to the right college,” Smith said.
With hundreds of students on their plate, many counselors don’t have the time to build meaningful relationships and provide personalized assistance, Smith said. That inhibits the counselor’s ability to act as a mental health resource, as “somebody for students to talk to.
“We have been pushing for more resources for counselors, social workers and psychologists in our schools because we think that can address the issues that lead to violent or unfortunate situations,” Smith said. “We’ve also been trying to get students to see more opportunities outside of postsecondary education. There are myriad things (counselors) can do.”
The recession led to drastic cuts to school funding, and superintendents looking for positions to cut often viewed counselors as expendable, said Sarah Dickman, the headquarters manager of the Michigan School Counselor Association.
Some districts tried to fill the void by hiring behavior specialists, graduation coaches and other positions with narrow focuses. But these positions are rarely able to offer the mental health services qualified counselors provide, she said.
All districts face issues like homelessness and access to mental health services, Dickman said. Districts in the Upper Peninsula in particular struggle to attract qualified counselors to address these problems.
Although the national association advocates for 250 students per counselor, the bill would mark a step in the right direction, said Rep. Julie Brixie, D-East Lansing.
“I think we recognized that getting to 250 from a funding perspective is probably unrealistic, but it’s a good way to close the gap,” said Brixie, who is a co-sponsor of the legislation.
The bill is sponsored by nearly 30 Democrats and one Republican, mostly representing large, urban school districts. Other sponsors include Reps. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids; Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo; and Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint.
Brixie and Hoadley said while urban districts face severe struggles, inadequate school funding “across the board” means smaller rural districts are rarely in a better position to meet their students’ needs.
“This is a need that shows up in different ways for different districts, but no corner of the state is immune from the fact that we need more counselors in our schools,” Hoadley said.
The one-page bill doesn’t appropriate any funds to assist cash-strapped districts in complying. While the 450-to-1 ratio is a good goal, Smith said, there’s “no way” districts could afford to meet it without state assistance or additional resources.
In the previous legislative session’s lame duck period, $31 million in supplemental funding was approved to address the issue of mental health support services, while $18 million was set aside for at-risk student support.
Hoadley, who lambasted “Republican disinvestment” from statewide school funding for causing the counselor shortage, said no funding is allotted in the bill because it is “best practice” to not mix policy with its appropriations.
Schools that took steps to lower their dropout rates “should be able to pay for the ongoing support of the counselors through higher pupil counts and therefore higher appropriations for districts,” he said.
One-time funding sources like grants could potentially provide additional support, he said.
Despite criticizing Republicans for spearheading school budget cuts, Hoadley said there’s a lot of talk at the Capitol about bipartisanship. He said he hopes cooperation can lead to the passage of the bill — and to a concerted effort to address the mental health and educational needs of Michigan children.
“We need to have a real conversation about funding our schools at a level that meets all of their needs,” Hoadley said. “This is an issue that touches districts big and small, urban and rural.”