Dayton wants to fix state's student-counselor ratio, among worst in country

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton, Jan. 20, 2015, in St. Paul, Minn.
Jim Mone / AP

Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to include more money for schools when he releases his budget plan next week and a portion would boost funding for school counselors.

Dayton, and those who support the plan, say hiring more counselors would help ensure that today's students are ready to be tomorrow's workers.

"Over time, we've seen the number of school counselors just diminish quite dramatically," said Bill Stock, a counselor at Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls. "There are issues outside of school that impact students and their ability to learn, and those things are never dealt with — and there's not people in line to help intervene."

There is just one problem with the plan: School superintendents likely will oppose the plan because they want the money with no strings attached.

But Stock, who has been a counselor for 30 years, said the need is great. He said there's just one counselor for several elementary schools in the northwest part of the state, where the number of middle school counselors has been cut in half and high school counselors have also been cut.

The drop in counselors, Stock said, comes at a time when students need more help from adults they can trust.

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"It really isn't going to matter a lot what happens in that classroom because they're not ready to learn," he said. "Those basic needs are not being met of safety, just solid mental health."

Minnesota ranks near the bottom of states nationally in terms of the number of counselors per student.

One reason the state is trailing is that other states require counselors while Minnesota does not. Another reason is financial pressure. School superintendents have been required to deal with boosting student test scores and keep class sizes small with a limited amount of money.

That means schools may hire a reading specialist or another teacher at the expense of a new counselor.

Dayton hopes to encourage schools to hire more counselors and other school support staff.

"Superintendents and school boards should know what's needed in their areas," the governor said. "And they should look at the fact that we're ranked 48th as a clear red flag that we're way behind where we need to be."

Dayton hasn't yet released his plan for boosting the number of school counselors. But state Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, wants the state to pay at least part of the cost when school districts hire new counselors or other support staff hired. Kent calls it a workforce development issue.

"We're all talking about how important it is that our workforce is getting the pathways that they need so that we have them prepared to do the work that we need in Minnesota," Kent said. "If we don't have enough qualified people in the buildings to advise the kids then they don't necessarily make the best decisions."

State Rep. Jenifer Loon, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, said she's willing to take a look at boosting the number of counselors. But Loon, R-Eden Prairie, warned that she's not going to force school districts to hire more counselors.

"I would hope that schools have identified clearly that more counselors are what is needed," Loon said. "But I don't want to tie their hands if they think they need more reading specialists or just more classroom teachers to reduce classroom sizes if they think that is beneficial."

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate are expected to release their education priorities in the coming weeks. School superintendents are prepared to push back against any requirements to hire more counselors.

Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said he isn't interested in a boost in state aid to hire more counselors. He said the state should boost funding and let school districts decide how to spend it.

"We believe it's best to allow local school districts to make the decisions to meet the needs of the students within their communities with the available resources," Amoroso said.