In hindsight, the legislation looked so promising. Gov. Ralph Northam announced in his budget proposal last December that he wanted $36 million to begin a three-year program to increase the number of counselors in Virginia public schools.
His proposal stemmed from the findings of a Republican-led House of Delegates committee, formed after the Feb. 14, 2018, Parkland school shooting that claimed 17 lives. The panel decided, with bipartisan agreement, that adding counselors could help counter the trend of increased violence in the schools.
It is certainly no panacea for the epidemic of school shootings or other violent behavior. If someone has the perfect solution, we’re all ears. But if a trained, sympathetic ear would help any child, from elementary school on up, sort out troubles at home or school and possibly redirect that child’s arc to a healthier outcome, adding school counselors seems a justifiable expense.
The state Board of Education has been pushing since 2016 for the state to achieve a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1 (The state currently funds a 425-to-1 ratio, though local funding reduces it to 329-to-1.)
Each chamber introduced a bill this year calling for the $36 million Northam sought to begin the three-year process to improve the ratio to 250-to-1. Local funds—whatever amount a locality was able to contribute—are generally used to help lower the ratio.
Under the legislation, not only would there be additional counselors, those counselors would spend at least 80 percent of their work time seeing students. Any time-consuming administrative work for which they are responsible would have to fall on someone else.
Boosting the ranks of counselors requires the state Board of Education’s Standards of Quality to be revised, and that requires legislation and the necessary funding to make it happen.
Things were looking pretty good, especially for the Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D–Petersburg. After passing easily in the Senate, it crossed over to the House, won approval there, and was signed into law by the governor in March with the $36 million allocation intact.
Meanwhile, as work proceeded on the House version, sponsored by Del. Delores McQuinn, D–Richmond, the assembly’s budget drafters decided they could come up with only $12 million for additional counselors. The House bill with the new amount was approved and sent to Northam.
Because the actual budgeted figure takes precedence, and he wouldn’t settle for the lesser, inadequate amount, Northam rightly vetoed the House bill.
The push to obtain additional funds will continue next year, a spokesman for Del. McQuinn’s office said, and whatever can be accomplished with Sen. Dance’s approved legislation will be.
We certainly share the frustration of these lawmakers, who saw the legislation advancing only to be stymied by the failure of their colleagues to allocate a relatively small amount of money.
Based on Virginia state budgets of about $58 billion and $62 billion for the current and next fiscal years, respectively, the $24 million reduction that caused the governor’s veto represents about 0.04 percent of the total budget. Not 4 percent, not four-tenths of a percent, but 4 one-hundredths of a percent. It’s equivalent to 24 bucks of a $60,000 budget.
And let’s not forget that the state is anticipating a windfall of $1.2 billion over the biennium due to the federal government’s tax code overhaul.
So do Virginia’s lawmakers want to add these counselors, which its own legislative panel determined would be a worthwhile step toward reducing violence in the schools, or not? Their near unanimous votes on the legislation suggest they do, but their inability to find the necessary funds are a strong indication that they do not.