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Minnesota’s awful student-school counselor ratio may finally improve

At one school counselor for every 792 students, Minnesota is third-worst in the nation — and has been for years. But counselors find hope in a speech … and organizing.

Minnesota may have recently ranked as the nation’s third-healthiest state, but another third place the state earned is nothing brag about: 792 students for every school counselor — the nation’s third-highest ratio.

To put it another way: we’re 48th! The national average is 460:1. North Dakota’s ratio is 312:1. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250:1 ratio.

Dwelling in the nation’s school-counselor cellar is nothing new for Minnesota. “We were 48th, 49th, 50th really through the 1990s,” said Tom Tillberry, a school counselor in the Roseville Area Schools. “It’s been a slow go, always.”

What is new: Encouraging words from Gov. Mark Dayton, last week who called for more school counselors in his State of the State Address (video):

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“Starting in junior high school, our education system needs to make students aware of the real-world opportunities and the pitfalls in that world that they will be entering. … they must need to hear again and again and again that continuing their education will be absolutely essential to achieving the lives that they want. Our schools need more guidance counselors, who are specially trained in career guidance, to help junior high and high school students better understand what their opportunities are and how to prepare for them.”

The governor’s statement was “huge,” said Minnesota School Counselor Association president David Warner, whose group gathered at their annual conference in Brainerd over the weekend.

Usually, when the state’s lousy school counselor ratio comes up, “we have a lot of people nodding their heads,” Warner said, adding that now, “motors are already working.”

However, gubernatorial rhetoric will have to overcome years of stagnant funding, amid a preoccupation with lower class sizes that has meant fewer counselors. That’s why the counselors have stepped up organizing.

Minnesota ranks 48th in the nation
Minnesota School Counselors Association
Minnesota ranks 48th in the nation with one counselor for every 792 students in K-12 schools.

The budget bind

The MSCA is in the early stages banding together with other student-services professionals — including school social workers, psychologists, nurses and chemical dependency counselors — to seek more state funds.

As many services as school counselors provide students — from crisis counseling and help with social and classroom problems to the career and educational guidance the governor emphasized — they’re commonly caught in a budget bind.

Tom Tillberry
Tom Tillberry

Carol Hokenson, who manages the state education department’s school finance division, said  “local budget decisions put an emphasis on lowering class sizes. When funding decisions get made, it’s often at the expense of other areas” — like school counselors.

Another thing holding counselors back: unlike their student-services allies, “We deal with every single student,” Tillberry said. “We meet with every kid.”

That makes it difficult for school administrators to pay for counselors with reimbursable funds limited to students receiving special education services, for example.

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“School districts ‘tote the note’ on their own to hire school counselors,” said Walter Roberts, who trains school counselors in Minnesota State Mankato’s graduate program.

That funding double whammy could account for the state’s dismal ranking over the years, those interviewed said.

Other states kept counseling as an integral part of overall school curriculum during the 1980s and ‘90s, Roberts said, while Minnesota coasted on its 1970s educational achievements. “We’re running out of steam from the Minnesota Miracle,” he said.

(Another factor may be a depletion in the ranks of elementary-level counselors. Warner, who works in the Osseo School District, is one of only about 100 elementary school counselors in the state.)

Ratio worse than it appears?

However, Minnesota’s school counselor situation may have begun improving.

“I’m optimistic, because this year it seems like more school counseling positions are being advertised,” Roberts said.

He attributes the openings to retirements, and improved education funding, including the state returning the “school shift” funds borrowed from school districts.

It’s not likely that Minnesota’s new anti-bullying law will mean more school counselors, added Roberts, who served as co-chair on the state task force whose work laid the law’s groundwork. The law doesn’t include funding.

MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
Walter Roberts

Roberts is adamant that a better future for school counselors does not require taking anything away from other student service professions, who he said must work together for equitable service delivery to Minnesota students.

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Roberts suspects the state’s school counselor ratio may actually be worse than it appears in U.S. Department of Education figures, since some districts have moved to a “dean of students” model. That usually means even fewer student counselors, he said; deans who lack school-counseling certification may get mistakenly counted as counselors.

Whatever its ratio and national rank, Minnesota has a long way to go to catch up with neighboring states. Wisconsin nearly hits its legally mandated 1:450 ratio and Iowa and the Dakotas do even better.

“I don’t think any practicing professional thinks Minnesota is ever going to reach the national average,” Roberts said. A more realistic goal is reaching a ratio in the regional range, he added: “That would be a blessing.”

Minnesota has no mandated school-counselor ratio; indeed, such a measure would be a “poison pill” at the state Capitol, said Tillberry, who represented Fridley for three terms in the Legislature.

Tillberry succeeded in 2007 in getting a law passed that required districts to dedicate $3 of any $30-per-pupil Safe School Levy to student-support services — only to see that measure repealed in 2010 over concerns about local control.

But the state of Minnesota school counseling may have seen a shift with the governor’s State of the State message. MSCA president Warner said the association’s government-relations committee to realize their time had come: “We’ve got to start looking [for a solution] sooner rather than later.”