Tennessee should prioritize funding for nurses and school counselors

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With the pandemic underscoring the importance of the physical, social and emotional health of students, an influential Tennessee committee is urging Gov. Bill Lee to prioritize more funding for nurses and school counselors next year.

An annual investment of about $ 110 million would allow Tennessee to achieve nationally recommended nurse and counselor ratios in public schools, according to the panel of government and education officials who annually review the state education funding formula.

The improvements, which were outlined in a letter to Lee on Monday, would allow Tennessee to fund 1 nurse for every 750 students instead of the current ratio of 1 to 3,000.

Tennessee could also fund 1 counselor for every 250 students. Currently, the state covers the cost of one counselor for every 500 students in elementary schools and 1 for 350 students in grades 7 to 12.

The recommendations mark the first time the Tennessee BEP review committee has elevated both needs to the top of its priority list for how to improve public education through the funding formula known as the program. basic education.

The headliner acknowledges what education experts have long said: Healthier students are better learners.

Committee approval increases the likelihood that Lee and the legislature will seriously consider investing in needs that state officials have long discussed but deemed too costly.

Last year, the governor and lawmakers followed the panel’s recommendation to keep funding for public schools in this year’s budget, even as student enrollments declined due to the pandemic. And former Gov. Bill Haslam heeded the panel’s suggestions when crafting several of his spending plans, which resulted in hundreds of millions of additional dollars being allocated to teacher compensation.

In its letter, the 22-member SEN committee said nurses are essential “to meet the needs of all students and in light of the ongoing public health crisis.”

The panel also cited the “expanded role and scope of responsibilities of school counselors,” which create comprehensive programs focused on student outcomes and help students navigate paths to college and career opportunities.

The letter was signed by Lillian Hartgrove, BEP panel member and chair of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Lillian Hartgrove, who chairs the Tennessee State Board of Education, chats with students during a school visit.
Courtesy of the Tennessee State Board of Education

Lee was traveling east Tennessee on Tuesday, and his press secretary, Casey Black, said the governor was reviewing the committee’s recommendations.

Earlier this year, as the pandemic continued to wreak havoc on student well-being, Lee championed a budget that included a $ 250 million trust fund to tackle student mental health through income annual investment – but did not include additional money to quickly hire more school nurses, counselors, social workers and psychologists.

An executive from the Tennessee School Counselors Association praised the prospect of additional funding for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, which begins next July.

“We’ve certainly never been at the top of this list before,” said Lauren Baker, who sits on the association’s board of directors.

Baker said the counselor-to-student ratio is particularly dire in elementary and middle schools because much of the Tennessee council’s focus is focused on college and career preparation. But the early years are just as important, she said.

“A lot of people in the industry have told our executives in Tennessee about college graduates who have trouble regulating their emotions or who have difficulty communicating or solving problems. If we don’t start teaching these basic skills to children, it is much more difficult to teach them as adults, ”Baker said Tuesday.

Most districts are already hiring more nurses and counselors than funded by the SEN formula. Providing more public funding to these areas would free up local funds for other needs, including teacher compensation, technology, or hiring more specialists for the state’s educational intervention program, which has been in existence for 7 years. years. These three elements completed the list of five funding priorities recommended by the committee.

Tennessee schools have received more than $ 4 billion in federal relief funds – a historic amount – to pay for expenses related to COVID-19 that range from recovery and learning acceleration programs to improving ventilation systems for school buildings. But that money must be spent or committed by September 2024, when it will no longer be available to cover recurring expenses like salaries.

Yet many districts are using federal funds to temporarily hire more nurses and counselors – an approach that kicks the road, said Robert Eby, vice chairman of the state Board of Education. .

“I think we have to understand that the [federal] funds are unique, ”Eby said at a recent BEP review committee meeting. “Originally, they weren’t there for the recurring costs.

At the same meeting, Hartgrove addressed funding opponents who say the federal injection of money should be enough for now.

“In reality, these are temporary pots of money to help deal with the current crisis. But you have a long-term need, regardless of the pandemic, ”she said.

Below is the committee’s letter to the governor:

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