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Betsy Russell reports: Idaho lawmakers are unhappy that the state’s schools superintendent has resisted moves to add more school counselors to help boost the number of students going on to higher education.

In 2010-2011, Idaho had 489 students for every counselor, above the national average of 471 and nearly twice the recommended national standard of 250 – which only three states meet. Washington’s student-to-counselor ratio is even higher, at 510.

The recommendations to trim Idaho’s student-to-counselor ratio and add a statewide coordinator for all K-12 school counselors were made in a report from the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations in 2012 as part of an array of moves aimed at encouraging more Idaho kids to go on to further education after high school. But state schools Superintendent Tom Luna rejected both school-counselor recommendations.

“The responsibility for a college-going culture should be all educators in a school, not focused on one person,” Luna wrote in a response to the report, delivered to lawmakers along with a follow-up report Wednesday. “While counselors provide excellent service, it would be difficult to add enough employees to make this recommendation meaningful at this time.”

He cited an Idaho school district where every Friday, “the teachers and staff members proudly sport a T-shirt or sweatshirt from their alma mater,” saying, “This is more than just a T-shirt. It is the beginning of a conversation throughout the day, where every teacher and staff member engages students in a discussion about the importance of post-secondary education. … This is just one example I have seen that could easily be duplicated across the state and that ensures every staff member is involved in the success of students after high school – not just the school counselor.”

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, took issue with Luna’s response. “I’m concerned,” he said. “I think we have to look at our counselors and their roles – I believe they may be doing too much administrative issues, and not enough counseling. … It’s a critical portion of getting our students to go on.”

The state Board of Education has set increasing Idaho’s dismally low number of students who go on to any type of higher education after high school as its top goal.

The state board, in its response to the legislative report, wrote, “Tight budgets at the school district level may result in the reduction of personnel within the school districts. … Secondary school counselors often fall into this category. A legislative change in the school district funding formula, or a separate funding stream, would be necessary to ensure school districts have dedicated funds available to hire school counselors.”

Mortimer, who is vice-chairman of the Senate Education Committee and also serves on the joint budget committee, said, “Something needs to change, for sure.”

According to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, only Wyoming, New Hampshire and Vermont fall below the recommended 250-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio.

“In our survey of school counselors, approximately half of the respondents indicated they spent 25 percent or less of their time counseling students on college readiness and college access,” the Idaho report found. “A lower student-to-counselor ratio may assist counselors in spending more time advising students on issues such as post-secondary education and career readiness.”

Said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who chairs the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, which received the follow-up report and responses on Wednesday, called Luna’s response “rather light-hearted given what I think is the magnitude of the problem.”

Said Ringo, “First of all, school counselors have to deal with many issues beyond higher education counseling and career counseling, and our ratio is so terrible … just to try to deal with the everyday problems that children have I think is a huge problem.”

The report also recommended adding a position at the state Department of Education to coordinate K-12 school counselors statewide, including coordinating training and college and career readiness efforts. Luna responded, “When we isolate the college culture to one person, it often leaves others feeling it is only that person’s responsibility.” He said if his office were to add another position, rather than one to oversee counselors, “I would suggest a coordinator who works on helping students become post-secondary ready through advanced opportunities including dual credit, Advanced Placement, or college entrance exams.”

He added, “It would seem to me that a position focused on expanding opportunities for students, rather than focused only on communications for adults, would be a more prudent and effective use of state dollars.”

Luci Willits, Luna’s chief of staff, said Wednesday that Luna stands by his response. She noted that the department tried unsuccessfully this year to persuade lawmakers to fund another position in the office, to oversee Indian education, that had been cut during the economic downturn; the department instead had to rely on salary savings to fund that position.

“In terms of investing in more counselors, certainly that is an option for the state,” Willits said, “but the superintendent would prefer to pay existing educators increased salaries, than spread the already decreased pie from the recession even more.”

The state Board of Education, since the initial report came out in January of 2012, has started a grant-funded, online counselor training program available to counselors across the state through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy. The grant lasts for two years; this year, its first year, 52 counselors enrolled in the initial round and 33 passed the course.

“Continued use of the training resource at the end of the grant will be dependent on individual school district priorities and budget restrictions,” Tracie Bent, chief planning and policy officer for the state board, wrote in the board’s response to the legislative report.

The follow-up report found more progress on other recommendations initially made in 2012. Those included revamping Idaho’s state college scholarships to focus limited funds more on need-based aid; legislation to do that passed this year. The state board and the Idaho Department of Labor also are working on collecting more data on scholarship recipients, tracking their progress and eventual employment, and strategizing to coordinate college-readiness efforts with the state’s workforce needs.

Mortimer said, “We are making progress, but I would like to see a little more progress.”

The state board’s goal is that by 2020, 60 percent of Idahoans ages 25-34 will have some type of post-secondary degree or certificate. In the 2010 Census, that figure was just 35 percent.

Said Ringo, “We sure have to watch that. I think it’s a big obstacle to having our economy improve and being able to retain graduating students in Idaho, so I hope that we’re taking it seriously.”

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