Friday, May 3, 2019

School Counselor Legislation- Why Did Governor Northam Veto a Bill Today?

In case you have seen the press release, Governor Northam vetoed House Bill 2053 carried by Delegate Delores McQuinn. I want you to know that's good news and here's why...

If you have been following this blog, you know that the General Assembly put a lot of focus on increasing state funding for school counselors by making significant changes to the staffing ratios in the Standards of Quality. This all has been a long time coming.

In November of 2016, the Virginia Board of Education, recognizing the tremendous needs of our public school students, adopted improvements to the school counselor staffing standards. That recommendation of one school counselor for every 250 students, is the recommendation of the National School Counselors Association. It took until 2019 to take action. In December of 2018, Governor Northam included $36 million in his budget amendments to fund the first year of a three year phase in of the 1:250 ratio. The VEA was delighted to see this investment and we were prepared to fight to make sure the members of the General Assembly included this funding in the final budget and passed the legislation that was required to update the SOQ. Keep in mind, that the SOQs exist in law, so without legislation, they are just BOE recommendations.

Senator Roslyn Dance and Delegate Delores McQuinn carried this important legislation for the Governor. If you followed along on this blog, you know that the Senate bill (SB1406) ultimately passed the House and Senate pretty early after crossover. The Governor signed that bill and it will become law on July 1, 2019. That bill requires the full state investment of $36 million to cover the cost, and the General Assembly leadership realized they weren't ready to fully fund that amount. They were still in session, so they made significant changes to the House version of the bill (HB2053) so that it would fit the dollar amount they were willing to spend on school counselors. That amount was only about $12 million. So basically the General Assembly was only willing to fund 1/3 of the first year of a three-year phase in. To make sure they were safe from the ratios and expense of the Senate bill that passed, the leadership of the money committees included language in the budget that said,

"Notwithstanding the provisions of subsection H of § 22.1-253.13:2 of the Code of Virginia, as amended by the 2019 Session of the General Assembly, to the contrary, each school board shall employ the following full-time equivalent school counselor positions for any school that reports fall membership, according to the type of school and student enrollment: effective with the 2019-2020 school year, in elementary schools, one hour per day per 91 students, one full-time at 455 students, one hour per day additional time per 91 students or major fraction thereof; school counselors in middle schools, one period per 74 students, one full-time at 370 students, one additional period per 74 students or major fraction thereof; school counselors in high schools, one period per 65 students, one full-time at 325 students, one additional period per 65 students or major fraction thereof."

What this budget language does is override any laws that passed and, instead, sets the ratio of school counselors to students at what the General Assembly was willing to spend rather than what the law they passed required, or what our students need.

During the reconvened session on April 3, the Governor offered suggestions on the House version of the bill that would have fixed the mess created by two different bills and bad budget language. His very good recommendations were rejected by the General Assembly. That left the Governor with no option but to veto the House version of the bill that had been amended to require far fewer school counselors for our students.

So where are we now? 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 BOE and the School Counselor Association. That is good news. 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 SOQs. We must make sure that the General Assembly does not let this bad language remain in the budget. They must fully fund all of the SOQs, even the newest update. The Governor is committed to fully funding the improved ratios for school counselors, let's make sure before we vote for any member of the General Assembly this November, they are also committed to do the same.