Does Idaho need more school counselors?

Tom Luna came under fire last week, when legislative auditors issued a followup report on encouraging high school graduates to attend college.

In early 2012, the Office of Performance Evaluations said Idaho needs to hire more school counselors to help students make plans for life after graduation — and hire a statewide “counselor coordinator” to provide current information on college and career trends.

Luna has resisted both recommendations. When the auditors pointed this out in their followup report, legislators of both parties expressed their chagrin with Luna, the Republican state schools superintendent.

The study, “Reducing Barriers to Postsecondary Education,” is aimed at helping the State Board of Education reach a lofty goal: a 60 percent postsecondary graduation rate by 2020. Auditors didn’t focus exclusively on hiring and training counselors. On other issues, auditors gave state agencies mixed marks.

The counseling conundrum

First, the numbers.

In 2009-10, Idaho had one counselor for every 447 students — a bit better than the national ratio of 459:1, but far worse than the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association.

“In our survey of school counselors, approximately half of the respondents indicated they spent 25 percent or less of their time counseling students on college readiness and college access,” the OPE said in its report.

Luna opposes making a push to add counselors, for several reasons. First, he says counseling staff has more than kept pace with Idaho enrollment growth over the past 15 years. Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, Luna believes it takes more than counselors to do the job. “I strongly believe more strategies should be incorporated to help schools create a climate where high school graduation, career counseling, and matriculation to postsecondary education are part of every certified staff’s responsibility, not just career counselors,” Luna wrote in his response to the report.

When the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee met last week to hear an update on the report, lawmakers voiced their concerns. “I think we have to look at our counselors and their roles – I believe they may be doing too much (on) administrative issues, and not enough counseling,” said Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review’s Betsy Russell. “It’s a critical portion of getting our students to go on.”

A counseling coordinator?

By Luna’s count, more than 600 counselors work in Idaho schools. However, he is skeptical about the idea of hiring a coordinator at the state level.

Said Luna: “If the state were to add an additional FTE, I would suggest a coordinator who works on helping students become postsecondary-ready through advanced opportunities including dual credit, Advanced Placement, or college entrance exams. It would seem to me that a position focused on expanding opportunities for students, rather than focused only on communications for adults, would be a more prudent and effective use of state dollars.”

Meanwhile, the State Board of Education has stepped into the role of training counselors. Using grant dollars and the Idaho Digital Learning Academy’s infrastructure, the board has provided online training to 93 counselors. “The goal is to provide training to all secondary counselors in the state over the next two years at no cost to school districts,” Tracie Bent, the State Board’s chief planning and policy officer, said in a letter to OPE.

Works in progress

It’s been 17 months since the OPE issued its initial report on barriers to college attendance. In several areas, state agencies are starting to break down the obstacles, as last week’s followup report noted:

  • Idaho is shifting from merit-based scholarships toward need-based scholarships. The 2013 Legislature passed a law aiming to do just that, a makeover of $5.9 million in scholarship programs.
  • The State Board is working with universities to establish performance measures and benchmarks aimed at awarding more degrees. Universities will present their plans at October’s State Board meeting.
  • The State Board and the Department of Labor are working together to make sure that the universities’ academic strategies align with projected changes in the job market. Meanwhile, the Labor Department is using $2.8 million in state and federal grants to come up with a tracking system to see where Idaho college graduates find work — in the state and in the region.
Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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