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Northam Proposes Three-Year Phase-In of Recommended Student, Counselor Ratio

Northam press conference

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam previewed another piece of his budget proposal Thursday: $36 million to fund more school counselors. That follows an announcement Tuesday to fund the state’s share of a five percent teacher pay raise among other investments in education.

“K-12 is having a really big week,” said Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni speaking during Thursday’s announcement. “This proposal will put Virginia on a path to providing an ideal ratio for school counselors to students at every level: from kindergarten to a high school senior.”

Right now, there’s about one counselor for every 350 high school students in the state, one for about every 400 middle and 500 elementary students. Northam’s goal is to get to the recommended ratio of 1 to 250 over the next three fiscal years. That ratio has been endorsed by the American School Counselor Association and the Virginia

But, Northam only announced partial funding for next year. That would bring the ratio to 1 counselor for every 300 high school students, 325 middle and 375 elementary school students. The $36 million investment “would be the first installment of a three-year, phased strategy to hire enough school counselors to reduce caseloads to 1:250 across all grade bands.”

A top proposal out of Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox’s Select Committee on School Safety: limit the amount of time school counselors spend on administrative work by hiring additional testing coordinators to take care of the brunt of the administrative burden.

“That does not address the underlying and core challenge of the number of students they [school counselors] have,” said Chris Duncombe, Senior Policy Analyst with the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. “There have been several studies that have looked at caseloads for school counselors, and there’s pretty clear evidence that schools with lower student caseloads had better outcomes in terms of graduation rates, fewer disciplinary actions and the findings are most stark in higher poverty schools.”

According to a recent report from the Commonwealth Institute, school counselors in Virginia have 85 more students than they did eight years ago.

Speaker Cox’s Select Committee on School Safety has also recommended creation of a Commission on Student Mental Health to study the current school counselor-to-student ratio and whether or not proposed realignment of counseling responsibilities would improve delivery of direct services.