What 1.6 Million American Students Are Missing

What 1.6 Million American Students Are Missing

LA School Police Sgt. Robert Carlborn watches over students lining up to pass through a security checkpoint in the aftermath of two apparent racially motivated student brawls at Thomas Jefferson High School April 21, 2005, in Los Angeles.

SourceDavid McNew/Getty

Why you should care

Because we all need a little help.

John B. King Jr. understood the importance of school counselors from a young age, because his own mother served as one in his school. “I can remember hearing her talk with my father about her students and the kinds of support she was providing them,” he says.

But when tragedy struck twice, taking his mother when he was just 8 and his father when he was 12, the importance of in-school support became starkly apparent. “It was an incredibly difficult experience, and I was fortunate to have teachers who really took on providing not only a great academic experience, but very significant socio-emotional support,” the U.S. secretary of education says, laying bare his personal sensitivity to the difference in-school support can make in children’s lives. So he’s “distressed” that

1.6 million American kids attend schools with law enforcement officers but no school counselor.

That’s according to this year’s U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights report based on data collected from 2013-2014. While 95 percent of American high schoolers have access to at least one counselor, more than a fifth of high schools don’t have a single counselor, which means 850,000 American secondary students do not have any scholastic support to coach them on the transition to postsecondary education. The 1.6 million figure stems from all levels of students, K-12, who attend a school with a sworn law enforcement officer but no school counselor.

State and local leaders have chosen to put their resources into SROs rather than school counselors.

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.

As with so many education-related issues, money matters. This lack of counseling, King says, “disproportionately affects high-needs schools,” and serves as a reflection of resource-allocation inequities, both across districts and within them. A difference of just 10 blocks can mean up to a 30 percent difference in resources spent per pupil, he says. This adds up to Latinos, Asians and Blacks being 1.4, 1.3 and 1.2 times as likely as whites, respectively, to have a cop at school but no guidance counselor, the report says.

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Richmond High School in California

Source Justin Sullivan/Getty

There’s no question that children’s safety comes first, but King says “there’s really not a clear evidence base on the impact of school resource officers.” Besides, safety and guidance shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. “Strong guidance can actually be viewed as a form of future safety that helps keep students on track,” says Zack Perkins, co-founder of CollegeVine, a national provider of student mentorship and college admissions guidance. Moreover, King and his colleagues are concerned that school resource officers, or SROs, may be delving into school discipline — perhaps unnecessarily taking matters that should be dealt with by teachers into the criminal realm.

King’s priority is to help ensure that all schools have counselors with reasonable workloads. One counselor for 6,000 students won’t cut it. But most SRO and counselor hiring decisions are made at the local level and paid for by state and local funding. “In the case of these 1.6 million,” King says, “state and local leaders have chosen to put their resources into SROs rather than school counselors.”

That said, roughly 90 percent of school funding is raised at the state and local level, with the federal government picking up just 10 percent of the bill. Those footing the bills, in other words, are the ones making the decisions about how best to serve their communities.

But the government is still hoping to steer toward an equitable approach. King points to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which entails requirements geared toward resource-equity transparency. This will require states to account for their allocations, making access to opportunities for all students, regardless of district wealth, more transparent. The act’s new Supplement-not-Supplant regulation also aims to ensure that federal dollars are used in supplemental ways within districts, rather than as backfill for state and local obligations. States must submit their plans for implementation starting next year, and the Obama administration hopes proposed Title IV funding will soon be approved by Congress — money that could be used to help support more school counselors.

Money and guidance can go only so far though, King acknowledges: “We really need state and local leaders to step up and ensure that students have access to counselors.”

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