Hiring school counselors can’t wait

Opinion by Charlene Fernandez in Arizona Capitol Times

Nine hundred and three to one.

That is the ratio of students to public school counselors in Arizona public schools. The national average is half that rate. That disparity represents a potential disaster in the making and merits an urgent response.

Counselors are the first line of contact for students who may be experiencing emotional issues and need help, and they are an effective first line of defense if those students are intent on harming themselves or others.

House Democrats did not support the 2019 Republican budget for a variety of valid reasons – chiefly a massive tax cut when our public schools’ needs remain unmet. But one element that our caucus strongly supported was a $20 million appropriation for grants to public schools, so districts could hire more counselors, social workers or school resource officers.

Arizona has a looming safety crisis in our schools and this funding will help prevent tragedies.

So, we were beyond disappointed to learn that the State Board of Education has decided to bank that $20 million, potentially for a year, so Arizona Department of Education staff re-tools its grant application to reflect not just potential funding for school resource officers, but also counselors and social workers.

There were dozens of two-year-old grant applications from schools in the pipeline, but those were only for school resource officers. The Legislature added the flexibility to do more with the money.

We can understand the logic of re-opening the grant process, which only covered school resource officers, when there is now funding for counselors and social workers as well. But there must be a better, and faster way, to recalibrate the application so schools that need counselors and social workers won’t have to wait a year to apply or be funded.

This is a bureaucratic challenge to be sure. But it’s not akin to building a new school from the ground up. It’s more like putting a new coat of paint on an existing school. Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and the State Board of Education should work together, update the form and get this money moving.

Superintendent Hoffman is one of the brightest and most capable leaders our state has elected in a long time. We are confident that she can work with the Board without any unnecessary delay to update the grant application so schools can begin applying for the funding and hiring counselors this year.

In Arizona, help for our schools can always wait, it seems. A 903-1 student-to-counselor ratio is an emergency. The consequences of delay could be tragic. Our state’s response requires more urgency than “wait until next year.”

Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, is the House Democratic leader.

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