Politics & Government

How many school counselors is enough? Berger and NCAE hotly debate issue ahead of May 1 march.

Senate leader Phil Berger is dismissing the goal of reaching a nationally recommended standard for school counselors, leading to groups supporting Wednesday’s mass teacher protest to say he’s ignoring the problem of teen suicide in North Carolina.

The N.C. Association of Educators plans to bring thousands of teachers to Raleigh on Wednesday to call for more state Medicaid and education funding, including bringing the number of school counselors and other school support staff to nationally recommended ratios. But Berger is pointing to how North Carolina’s ratio is improving and is now 19 percent above the national average.

Berger says North Carolina’s ratio of one counselor for every 368 students is above the national average of one person for every 455 students. The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students.

“The NCAE misleadingly tells the public that North Carolina’s ratio is higher than the ‘national standard,’ which is determined by the national association that advocates for more funding for school counselors,” according to a news release that Berger’s office released Friday.

“In fact, just two states in the entire country have a student-to-counselor ratio that is better than the ‘national standard’ – Vermont and New Hampshire. North Carolina has 18 times the number of students that Vermont has and 9 times the number of students that New Hampshire has.”

Berger’s critics are accusing him of being insensitive to the needs of students in crisis. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 17-year-olds in North Carolina, according to a report released in February by N.C. Child.

“The rate of teen suicide in NC has doubled in the last 10 years and @SenatorBerger thinks asking for funding for more school counselors and psychologists is a far-left plot,” the Public School Forum of North Carolina tweeted Friday. “Truly an embarrassing and uninformed take when children are literally dying. Real needs. #NCED #NCGA”

Support has increased for hiring additional support staff following a wave of school shootings such as the February 2018 massacre in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead. One of the planks of Wednesday’s protest is to bring the number of school librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses and other health professionals to nationally recommended standards.

Staff at the state Department of Public Instruction said in October that it would require around $688 million more in state funding to hire enough additional nurses, social workers, counselors, psychologists and school resource officers to reach nationally recommended ratios, the News & Observer previously reported.

The state House budget released Friday provides $22.3 million more the first year and $37.9 million the second year to hire additional school mental health staff and school resource officers.

But in a news release Friday, Berger focused on how the ratio of counselors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and librarians has improved in recent years. For instance, he said the state’s student-to-counselor rank has improved from 19th nationally to 14th since Republicans took control of the General Assembly after the 2010 election.

Berger also says the state is higher than the national average for the ratio of school counselors and librarians.

He repeated his accusation that the purpose of Wednesday’s protest is to elect more Democrats to the state legislature.

“The far-left NCAE likes to tell one-tenth of the truth to mislead the public and the media about the reality of education in North Carolina,” Berger said in the press release. “As legislators, it’s never okay to think the job is finished because we can always improve upon the status quo, and advocacy — from teachers, parents, or anybody — is critical to that work.”

“But this data shows unequivocally that Republican education policies have improved even the areas the NCAE cites as the reason for their strike. Advocacy is always welcome; deceiving the public to achieve political goals and justify keeping hundreds of thousands of kids out of school is not.”

Symone Kiddoo, a social worker in Durham Public Schools, said Berger’s data isn’t the “whole truth” of what students face and need at school.

“The whole truth is that I’m responsible for 1,125 students between my two elementary schools,” Kiddoo said. “The whole truth is that my school counselors get taken away from student emotional well-being to handle testing administration.

“The fact that North Carolina’s ratio is ‘better than other states’ doesn’t put food on my students’ plates or create a safety plan for a child considering suicide. We have a duty to provide the best for our students and our families, not just ‘better than national average.’”

Justin Parmenter, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg teacher and a member of the board of Red4EdNC, a group helping to organize the march, said that Berger should be ashamed of his comments.

“Senator Berger’s dismissive comments about the support services issue are appalling,” Parmenter said Monday. “Youth suicide rates are climbing, and we have students with no regular access to counselors, psychologists or social workers.

“North Carolina educators are simply asking for more mental health support for students who desperately need it. No reasonable person would see that as a left-wing plot to elect Democrats.”

Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Berger, said critics are twisting “themselves in knots” and not acknowledging that staffing ratios are getting better.

“Instead of admitting the truth and having a reasonable conversation about how to improve things even further, these far-left groups launch ridiculous attacks about Republicans not caring about suicide,” Ryan said in a statement Monday. “Obviously, every person regardless of party wants to stop children from harming themselves.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.