By Corinne Murdock |
House Democrats want taxpayers to fund the tuition of future K-12 school psychologists, social workers, and counselors.
State Rep. Judy Schwiebert proposed the arrangement in a bill establishing a K-12 mental health professionals academy in each of the state’s universities, HB2160. These universities would provide annual scholarships up to the actual cost of tuition and fees for up to three academic years or six semesters, as well as covering all costs of obtaining a school psychology, social work, or counseling certificate.
Even if these scholarships don’t cover all of the tuition and fee costs, the university would not be allowed to charge the student the remaining difference.
Funds to supply these scholarships would come from an “Arizona School Mental Health Professionals Academy Fund” established by the legislature. This fund would be continuously appropriated and exempt from lapsing. In addition to scholarships, this fund would pay for marketing and promotion plans in a yearly amount up to three percent of the fund, as well as unspecified “academy costs.”
Students in these proposed academies must work as a school psychologist, social worker, or counselor for one full year in an Arizona public school.
These academies would offer accelerated models for “critical need areas”: low-income public schools, Indian reservation public schools, rural public schools, and disability-oriented public schools.
The Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) would be tasked with developing the academy, including marketing and promotion plans, data collection and tracking, overseeing post-graduation service requirements, and funds distribution. Every year before Sept. 1, ABOR would have to issue a report to the governor, state senate president, and state house speaker on academy data.
Schwiebert garnered 23 cosponsors for her bill.
Expanding the state’s reserves of K-12 mental health professionals was a priority for former Superintendent Kathy Hoffman. Hoffman reduced the disparity between students and counselors by nearly 300, from over 1,200 at the start of her administration to over 1,500 by the end — an increase of about 20 percent. In 2021, Hoffman allocated $21.3 million in federal and state funds to hire more K-12 mental health professionals.
During her campaign for re-election, Hoffman pledged to further balance the state’s student-to-counselor ratio.
The fixation on student mental health became more pronounced following the forced shutdowns of schools and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned in a December 2021 report that youth mental health declined greatly and rapidly over the course of the pandemic.
Since then, the Biden administration has spent hundreds of millions to address the issue. Most recently, they allocated $245.7 million last week: $73.6 million for school-based mental health programs and services; $57.7 million to train school personnel, emergency first responders, law enforcement, and others to recognize mental health issues for early intervention; $14.9 million for K-12 “trauma-informed” and “culturally relevant” support services and mental health care; $19.5 million for treatment of children, adolescents, and families that have experienced trauma; $20 million for the promotion of resilience and equity, as well as violence prevention in communities plagued with civil unrest, violence, and trauma; and $60 million for primary care clinician mental health training geared toward children and adolescents.