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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho schools superintendent dismisses adding counselors

Board of Education hopes to grow college aspirations

BOISE – Idaho lawmakers are unhappy that the state’s schools superintendent has resisted moves to add more school counselors.

More counselors equals more students continuing their education at colleges or trade schools, they say.

Increasing Idaho’s dismal percentage of students pursuing higher education is the state Board of Education’s top priority. The goal is that 60 percent of Idahoans ages 25-34 will have a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2020.

The 2010 census showed 35 percent.

“We sure have to watch that,” said Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who chairs the joint legislative committee that received a report on the issue Wednesday. “I think it’s a big obstacle to having our economy improve.”

In 2010-11, Idaho had 489 students for every school counselor, above the national average of 471 and nearly twice the recommended national standard of 250 – which only three states meet. Washington’s student-to-counselor ratio is even higher, at 510.

The recommendations to trim Idaho’s student-to-counselor ratio and add a statewide coordinator for all K-12 school counselors were made in a report from the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations in 2012. They were part of an array of moves aimed at encouraging more Idaho students to go on to further education after high school. But state schools Superintendent Tom Luna rejected both recommendations.

“The responsibility for a college-going culture should be all educators in a school, not focused on one person,” Luna wrote in a response to the report, delivered to lawmakers along with a follow-up report Wednesday. “While counselors provide excellent service, it would be difficult to add enough employees to make this recommendation meaningful at this time.”

He cited an Idaho school district where every Friday, “the teachers and staff members proudly sport a T-shirt or sweatshirt from their alma mater,” launching conversations with students about the value of higher education. “This is just one example I have seen that could easily be duplicated across the state and that ensures every staff member is involved in the success of students after high school – not just the school counselor.”

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, took issue with Luna’s response. “I’m concerned,” he said. “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. … It’s a critical portion of getting our students to go on.”

Luci Willits, Luna’s chief of staff, said Wednesday that Luna stands by his response. “The superintendent would prefer to pay existing educators increased salaries, (rather) than spread the already decreased pie from the recession even more.”

The state board, in its response to the legislative report, suggested the Legislature would need to identify a new source of funding if it wants schools to add more counselors; schools, instead, have been cutting staff due to budget cuts.

Mortimer, who is vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee and also serves on the joint budget committee, said, “Something needs to change, for sure.”