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April 20, 2020

Crises Demand Counselors

Many students and families are experiencing extremely trying times right now: school buildings closing abruptly, financial struggles, parents losing jobs, lack of access to food or reliable internet. We know the recovery will be steep and rocky for many Virginia families. We also know that having trained professionals in our schools to listen and guide students, particularly those experiencing severe trauma, will be essential to get them back on track. Yet with concerns about local revenue capacity, the governor has called to eliminate state funding that would have strengthened the ratio of school counselors in our schools. The planned investment isn’t just being placed on hold, like almost all other new budget investments, the governor is proposing to take it off the table entirely. But state lawmakers can protect this funding instead during reconvened session on April 22.

Facing unknown revenue shortfalls, Gov. Northam hit pause on most new budget spending until there is a better sense of the state’s revenue projections as a result of the health crisis. He did this by unallotting funding for the vast majority of new spending in the Virginia budget and will likely call a special session later this year to have lawmakers reconsider these priorities once there is an updated revenue forecast. However, he chose to go a step further on the proposed funding for counselors and remove this new investment from the budget.

While both local and state funding are of chief concern for making this new investment, there’s likely an opportunity that  Virginia will be able to use federal stimulus dollars from the CARES Act to shore up our state budget, come this summer. And there are active negotiations in Congress right now to provide additional support to state and local governments through a new stimulus bill. Furthermore, school divisions will be receiving more than $200 million directly from the CARES Act. They can use those funds for mental health support and counselors. With all these moving pieces, now is not the time to take one of the most needed and impactful investments for our students off the table. Lawmakers can reject this change to remove funding for new counselor investments when they reconvene on April 22. By doing so, they can consider the funding for counselors at a special session later this summer when we have a clearer picture of our revenue options.

For students to receive the full benefits of a comprehensive school counseling program, the school counselor caseload shouldn’t exceed 250 students. But since the 2007-2008 school year, student enrollment in Virginia schools has grown by more than 57,000 students, while staff available to meet the instructional and support needs of these students has decreased. As a result, the average student caseload for school counselors in Virginia has grown from 300 to 361 students over the past decade, with caseloads in some schools reaching more than 1,000 students per counselor. The General Assembly-approved investment would have gotten Virginia heading in the right direction and brought the ratio back down to 1 counselor for every 325 students in 2022.

Line graph showing that the average number of students per school counselor caseload in Virginia has increased from around 300 in 2008 to 361 in 2018. The recommended ration from Virginia's Board of Education is a caseload of 250 students per counselor. Includes text reading "School counselors in Virginia have 61 more students on average than they did a decade ago."

The current ratios make it difficult for counselors to perform the myriad of responsibilities they have in meeting the academic, career development, and social and emotional needs of students. They assist in class selection, study skill development, post-secondary planning, and are involved in the positive social development of students both inside and outside of the classroom. 

When students return to school, many will have faced severe emotional trauma during their prolonged time out of school, possibly experiencing financial instability within their family for the first time, and counselors will play an outsized role in helping students make a successful transition back to the classroom. Without setting a new ratio as a standard, and adding new state support, we’re likely to see our Virginia’s counselor ratio get even worse over the coming years, as localities struggle with their own budgets. Now more than ever is the time for Virginia to work creatively to adequately staff counselor positions.

Shows a school counselor smiling and helping a young student. 

Text in image reads "Counselors will play an outsized role in helping students make a successful transition back to the classroom. Lawmakers can still protect new counselor funding in the budget on April 22." Also includes the hashtag "#CrisesDemandCounselors."

Budget & Revenue, Education

Chad Stewart

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