ST. PAUL — While Minnesota regularly ranks high on national standards of health and happiness, the state ranks low in a critical area of its education. On average, there is only one school counselor per 792 students, a ratio which puts Minnesota at 48th in the nation. That has caught the attention of the Minnesota governor and Senate majority leader, who want more funding for career guidance counselors.
Some local officials said they value guidance counselors, but want nothing to do with mandates from St. Paul on the issue coming down on school districts. Spending priorities must stay local, they said.
“I would support increased funding that does not force districts to meet what is called maintenance of effort. Maintenance of effort restricts districts from spending resources where those resources are most needed and I believe each district knows where to best allocate or expend funds. If fully funded and without strings, I would support increasing staff in the counseling department,” said Virginia Superintendent Deron Stender.
And with one counselor and one social worker for the 320 students in his district, Blooming Prairie School Principal Barry Olson said it all comes down to money. He said current finances would require losing several teachers to gain one counselor. Even with general education funding increasing by one percent, Olsen said, hiring another school counselor would be a stretch.
The guidance counselor issue wedged its way into Gov. Mark Dayton’s 2014 State of the State Address, when he encouraged schools to introduce students to the opportunities and challenges they would face in the workforce.
And again this year, Dayton emphasized the unmet needs of schools throughout the state when he announced his budget proposal.
“Our schools need more guidance counselors, who are specially trained in career guidance, to help junior high and high school students better understand what their opportunities are and how to prepare for them,” said Dayton in his 2014 address.
Under Dayton’s 2015 budget plan, $418 million would be used in new spending for pre-K-12 education, earmarked to the issues most significant to individual schools.
“The Legislature has put a high value on how local communities work and knowing where their problems are, so a lot of responsibility for school spending lies with the local board members in the school district,” said Josh Collins, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Education.
After a decade of disinvestment, Collins said, Minnesota schools had to make difficult choices about spending, which often meant cutting staff, putting more work on each school counselor. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook said that while lawmakers have been aware of the state’s counselor/student ratio for years, the public probably isn’t aware of the problem. In previous years, Bakk said, lawmakers were focused on broader problems affecting Minnesota.
“I’ve known for a few years we had this problem but we really haven’t been in a situation to have the resources to fix it,” said Bakk said. “We had managed deficits for more than a decade going into the 2013 session. (The year) 2013 was really about stabilizing the state’s budget, so now is really our first chance for those of us who know about the problem to tackle it.”
Bakk said one of the problems behind the shortage is current school budget priorities. In particular, Bakk questioned the value of test performance in school evaluations, and how that policy affects schools’ budget decisions. Bringing more counselors to schools is critical, Bakk said, because counselors are an invaluable resource for guiding students toward a career path based upon their strengths.
“I think schools have prioritized their funding toward students doing well on tests,” said Bakk. “Since we’ve gone into this program of evaluating schools based upon test performance, its really fallen by the wayside.”
“Counselors evaluate ACT tests and see where a student’s strengths are and encourage them to explore different career paths, but all the ACT is used for currently is college applications,” said Sen. Bakk. “Someone needs to help students identify where their strengths are, and that’s a significant role for high school counselors. I think it works very well with our emphasis on workforce development.”
Bakk has been working with DFL colleague Sen. Susan Kent of Woodbury on addressing school counselor issues for the past two years. Kent plans to propose a bill that would allow schools to prioritize their most urgent budget needs.
“The challenge is that education resources are limited and there are many demands and typically most of those resources go toward areas like keeping class sizes low,” said Sen. Kent. “We try to leave a lot of flexibility to our local districts, because there’s a variety of districts and the way they’re structured. When you try to make it one size fits all, it can be a problem.”
Kent’s bill would have the state provide 50 percent of the cost toward specific school needs, while the school would provide the other half. Sen. Kent hopes this system would create incentive in schools to “staff up” student health services.
“Part of the challenge is trying to predict how many school districts would take advantage of this opportunity, how many people would they hire, and even if they want to do it if we have enough counselors to employ,” said Kent. “By necessity we start small and grow over time until we get to a better ratio.”
Kent believes the impact of school counselors supersedes any economic reason to hire one.
“This issue affects students and their futures in so many ways because we’re talking college and career counseling, and that’s important because we want our kids to have a plan for their future,” said Kent. “Students have behavioral issues, social and emotional challenges, and school professionals can often be the first people to identify and support those students.”
But according to Kay Hertling Wahl, a professor of counseling at the University of Minnesota, there are enough certified counselors in Minnesota to fill schools’ student health needs, but there aren’t enough counseling jobs. Wahl believes that without a state mandate on counselors, schools aren’t likely to adjust their spending to open up new counseling jobs.
“I don’t believe there is a shortage of school counselors in Minnesota,” said Wahl. “I graduate between 15 and 20 per year, and a majority of them move out of state because there are no openings. There are so few school counseling openings that our graduates have to find jobs in other states.”
Other states with mandated school counselors have a ratio of less than 250 students to one counselor, which Wahl believes should be the norm. But because it’s difficult to measure the monetary value of a counselor, Wahl is pessimistic about potential policy change at the local level.
“Schools won’t hire a counselor because they can get by without one,” said Wahl. “It’s very difficult to measure the advantage of a school counselor, and it’s become quite common and very routine for school districts to find ways to spend money but not on counseling.”
“I think they’re very important for the school district to have, but where do you come up with the money?” said Olson. “An increase of one percent won’t even cover our negotiations with our teachers. Eighty percent of our budget is dealing with people, so in order to hire more people you have to have more money. Right now, we don’t have that luxury.”
Mark Randall, Owatonna High School principal, has four counselors at his high school, one for every 350 students. Randall’s views on lacking school counselors are similar to Olson’s; school resources are limited by funding, with some schools being more flexible than others.
“I think a lot of it has to come down to where you’re going to place your priorities,” said Randall. “You must take something out of your budget to make room for more counselors. You might see classrooms get larger or pull some classes. We can only stretch our dollars and our people so far.”
Last spring, the Virginia School Board approved the addition of a part-time guidance counselor to help provide career and post-secondary assistance to students, Stender said.
“We are fortunate to have employed a highly-qualified counselor who is taking the lead in reaching out to our students, staff, and parents and offering them resources and support. We also have a very skilled full-time high school counselor who works with our students, staff, and families in addressing their needs. The two counselors work collaboratively to provide services and support to meet the needs of our students, staff, and families,” the Virginia superintendent added.
It remains to be seen whether conventional funding measures will measure up to mandate standards, but Collins is optimistic about the past success of support initiatives.
“The one thing I would emphasize is that these proposals can have significant benefits, and support initiatives have reduced incidents of discipline by 20 percent just over the last four years,” said Collins. “That’s significant.”
But if the conventional measures are ineffective, Wahl said, school mandates are not out of the question.
“I think it’s very promising to hear that the Legislature is at least looking at the possibility of mandating school counselors for any ratio of children,” said Wahl. “Any number would be a vast improvement.” That route, however, would be in conflict with Minnesota’s traditional local control emphasis for education.