Washington’s new school funding model includes too little money for school counselors — adults who offer essential mental-health and academic support for struggling students.
The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students.
Although the state’s prototypical school funding model recommends one counselor for every 236 high school students, one for every 387 middle school students and one for every 812 elementary students, school districts are not obligated by state law to meet these ratios. They have some flexibility about how they spend these state dollars, and some districts are making other choices. Only about one in four Washington schools has a school counselor.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal has asked the Legislature to put more guard rails around this funding to ensure more counselors in schools. Two bills before the Legislature could bring more dollars and policy improvements to help fill counseling offices.
Senate Bill 5315 would phase in higher staffing ratios for counselors, as well as school nurses, social workers and psychologists in elementary and middle schools. High schools would have better staffing ratios for nurses, social workers and psychologists. It has passed out of the Senate Committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education and the Ways and Means Committee.
House Bill 1265,would only phase in more money for guidance counselors in elementary and middle schools and require that these counselors spend at least 80 percent of their time providing direct services to students by September 2022. It has passed out of the House Education Committee.
Both bills have a combination of the policy and budget changes that would most likely benefit students.
A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union on how the lack of mental-health staff in schools is hurting students includes federal data showing only three states meet the recommended student-to-counselor ratio: Montana, Vermont and New Hampshire. The ACLU points out that American students are more likely to see a police officer in their building than a school counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker.
This data is significant for a number of reasons: Most mental-health issues begin to emerge in adolescence; suicide rates among 10- to-17-year olds increased by 70 percent between 2006 and 2016; mental-health concerns make it more difficult to succeed in school and are often tied to dropout statistics; students experiencing trauma at home can be helped by mental-health services at school.
In the 20 years since the devastating Columbine school shooting, the number of police and resource officers in school buildings has increased steadily. More school counselors would be a more effective hedge against future attacks. The Legislature should make this a priority.