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Money for student counseling takes a back seat

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Zanib Mohamed, right, a student advocate at JFK
Zanib Mohamed, right, a student advocate brought to Bloomington Kennedy High School to work with the school's Somali community, is surrounded by girls waiting for a chance to speak to her after class in February.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Lots of young, enthusiastic people want to be school counselors in Minnesota.

Test scores and graduation data show there's plenty of need for the kind of support counselors provide. Without the intervention of counselors and other support staff, students can get off track for graduation, end up dropping out and find themselves with few options for employment.

Full coverage: How did we get here? What's at stake? And what will it take to find a solution? 

"Kids can't perform as well academically if they've got some social and behavioral issues that aren't taken care of," said Lauren Salonek, a graduate student in Minnesota State University Mankato's counseling program. "School counselors can help them sort through those issues so they can perform better academically."

But compared to schools in other states, Minnesota schools don't hire many people like Salonek. School districts in the state average 743 students for every counselor, according to the American School Counselor Association. That is triple the student-to-counselor ratio that the group recommends. Only in Arizona and California do counselors work with more students per capita. 

School counselor-to-student ratios nationwide, 2014

MPR News graphic | Source: National Center for Education Statistics via American School Counselor Association

Minnesota ranks last in the percentage of education money spent on student support services, an MPR News analysis found. Minnesota schools spend 2.6 percent of their dollars on support services, less than half the national percentage. 

743 students per school counselor
MPR News Graphic | Source: MN Dept. of Education

The state's rate of support spending has lagged below the national rate for at least 20 years, but it didn't head to the very bottom until Minnesota's budget deficits of the 2000s. Schools were forced to make cuts while teacher salaries, benefits and other costs continued to rise. 

Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said his members understand the value of student support positions. But he said school boards are still coping with a level of state education funding that hasn't kept pace with inflation for more than a decade.

"Knowing that costs for personnel, transportation, health insurance don't always go down, districts want to have as much flexibility as they possibly can to meet the needs for their students," Schneidawind said.

Unlike most states, Minnesota has no minimum staffing requirements for school counselors or for any other student support positions — nurses, psychologists, chemical dependency counselors or social workers.

"I find it problematic that every kid in every school should not have access to these five core members of a service personnel team," said Walter Roberts, a professor in the Mankato counseling program.

He thinks Minnesota has put the issue on a back burner.

Senator Susan Kent, DFL, District 53
DFL Sen. Susan Kent introduced legislation last year to encourage school districts to add student support positions.
Minnesota Senate

State Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said she was stunned by the rankings.

"That just seems like we're not putting our priorities straight," she said.

Kent introduced legislation last year to encourage school districts to add student support positions.

But Kent's modest proposal of $16 million a year in matching state grants ran into a hurdle that has stopped similar efforts in the past: Minnesota has a longstanding aversion to education mandates. Local leaders prefer state funding increases with no strings attached, and legislators usually go along. 

Kent tried to ease concerns by making her program strictly voluntary. But she still faced resistance.

She said she understands that school districts want to keep as many teachers in the classroom as possible but thinks it's unfortunate that districts tend to see support staff as expendable.

Percentage of education money spent on support
Percentage of education money spent on support services for the U.S. and Minnesota, 1993 through 2013
MPR News graphic | U.S. Census Bureau

The education groups advocating for local control wield sizable influence at the Legislature. But they bristle at the suggestion that their influence is preventing an increase in student support numbers, or by extension, increases in test scores and graduation rates.

Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said the resistance to mandates is not a resistance to hiring counselors and other support staff.

"This is not anti-anything. This is providing school districts with the opportunity to make decisions on what they believe is in the best interest of their students," he said. 

"We would love to see additional resources available across the board, which would empower school districts to look at their entire program, and then make decisions on how they can best use the available resources to move that forward." 

The push for more student support services appeared to get a boost in 2014, when Gov. Mark Dayton highlighted the issue in his State of the State address.

Dayton visited with Mankato students, counselors.
Gov. Mark Dayton is greeted by students at Dakota Meadows Middle School in February. Dozens of Mankato school counselors, psychologists and social workers discussed their challenges.
Darren Gibbins | The Free Press

Dayton, however, did not follow up with a specific budget proposal. He pushed instead for increases in the basic school funding formula and in early childhood education.

Dayton recently told North Mankato student support workers that his top priority was to raise overall school funding to previous levels, "so that the resources are available to the school boards to improve the guidance counselor ratio as well as other things that need to be done."

Districts would have to shift about $75 million a year from current spending — or find new revenue — for Minnesota to get support spending back to where it was in the early 2000s. To hit the current national rate would require about a quarter billion dollars a year in additional support spending.

Dayton has said he would take another look at the issue as he prepares recommendations for spending an available surplus of $900 million.

The DFL-controlled state Senate is expected to revisit the student support grant proposal it passed in 2015.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie
Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, at a February 2015 news conference in St. Paul.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

The measure did not get a hearing in the Republican-controlled House. Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, said she might be willing to discuss the bill this year but first wants to turn up the heat. Loon said she wants to make sure schools are using the money they already receive on student support services.

"With that autonomy given to schools, there has to be sort of a check and balance, if you will, to see that schools are making good decisions," Loon said. "I don't want to make those decisions for them. But I do think it is our role at the Legislature to see what kind of decisions are being made, and then if we need to make some judgments about that, we will."