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For the first time in decades, Virginia lawmakers have agreed to increase the minimum number of counselors required in schools.

But they also decided not to fully fund those positions in the state budget.

“July 1, 2019, there will be a new law in Virginia that improves the school counselor-to-student ratio and puts us on a real path to the recommendations of the (Board of Education) and the School Counselor Association. That is good news,” the Virginia Education Association wrote on its website.

“The bad news is that the budget language trumps the good, new law and requires far fewer counselors than our students need. As of July 1, the General Assembly is no longer fully funding the (Standards of Quality).”

“While we’re excited because this is the first time the standard has been updated in almost 30 years, we have such a long way to go,” said Kathy Burcher, the VEA’s director of government affairs. “The fact is the General Assembly has overrode SOQ language …  they truly rewrote the law in the budget; that’s a really bad precedent to set.”

The Standards of Quality include the required number of positions the state will fund, as well as things like teaching licensing requirements and class sizes. When it comes to staffing, anything not required by the standards are localities’ financial responsibility. 

Since 2016, the Board of Education has recommended one full-time counselor for every 250 students regardless of grade level. The standard comes from the American School Counselor Association.

Based on 2015 data, there was about one counselor for every 329 students in Virginia, according to a presentation the Board of Education received this month.

The state funds one full-time counselor per 500 elementary students; one full-time counselor per 400 middle-school students and one full-time counselor per 350 students in high schools. Localities have been paying for additional counselors, Burcher said.

Lawmakers in both political parties wanted to boost the number of counselors in schools following recommendations from a special House of Delegates committee on school safety formed after the Parkland, Florida school shooting.

The disagreement came in determining what those new staffing numbers should be, since the state has to put up the money for any more required schools staff.

Gov. Ralph Northam presented budget amendments in December that included $36 million over three years to increase the number of counselors the state would pay for in schools. It was predicated on a number of tax conformity and policy changes he anticipated the legislature would make, but the final plan was different and left less revenue than expected, Burcher said.

The House of Delegates’ budget proposal retained Northam’s $36 million plan, while the Senate proposed a $12.1 million plan to provide a smaller increase in school counselors. The Senate’s proposal estimated the money could pay for 250 more counselors across the state.

Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, carried legislation to implement Northam’s plan. It was signed into law in March and survived the reconvened session. Dance’s bill requires one full-time school counselor per 375 elementary-school students; one full-time counselor per 325 middle-school students and one full-time counselor per 300 high-school students.

“Counselors play a critical function in schools as children sometimes struggle with difficult circumstances at home or in the classroom,” Dance said in a statement. “I introduced this legislation to ensure that every child has the opportunity to get help from a counselor when when needed. This is an important step in meeting the needs of our students.” 

But lawmakers included language in the budget that differs from Dance’s legislation, and the budget trumps her bill.

The approved budget allows state funding for one counselor for every 455 elementary-school students, one for every 370 middle-school students and one for every 325 high-school students.

That won’t change much for schools, said Brett Welch, a board member of the Virginia School Counselor Association. She works as a part-time elementary school counselor and district liaison for Henrico County.

But it does add more pressure to counselors, who are now required to spend 80 percent of their time counseling students, she said.

“While it’s absolutely a step in the right direction … it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to spend more time on counseling,” she said.

Burcher acknowledges that the budget language, while not ideal, is an improvement from the current standard. It also means, though, in the VEA’s view, that the state is no longer fully funding the SOQs, she said.

Up until this budget, the VEA considered all required staffing standards to be funded. While the Board of Education’s recommendations haven’t matched the approved SOQs for many years, the budget has, until now, provided the funding for what lawmakers have approved, Burcher said.

Northam can remove the language from the budget next year in his budget proposal and lawmakers will have the ability to amend it.