By Shawn Raymundo
A California lawmaker whose bill is aimed at closing the state’s gap between mental health counselors and students is also seeking an annual appropriation of $120 million in order to pay for the measure, potentially providing the Capistrano Unified School District with funding to hire more counselors.
This past December, Assemblymember Kansen Chu, who represents California’s 25th District, introduced Assembly Bill 8, which, if enacted, would mandate districts in the state to have a student to counselor ratio of 400-to-1 by the end of 2022.
“I’ve heard from many youth visiting my office that mental health support is what they want and need,” Chu said in a press release announcing the introduction of AB 8. “Early access to mental health support is critical to helping our kids build healthy futures. Unfortunately, California has fallen behind in providing pupil support services, and it is affecting our children’s well-being.”
CUSD currently has one counselor for every 1,300 students, approximately – a figure recently brought to light by the student-led group Strength Over Silence (SOS), which comprises students from San Juan Hills High School.
SOS has advocated the district to provide more mental health resources as part of its mission to tackle the stigma of mental illness and suicide. During a CUSD Board of Trustees meeting on March 13, members of SOS gave testimonials on their experiences dealing with mental illness and also proposed ideas to improve mental health services within the district.
According to the California Department of Education, the nation’s average student-to-counselor ratio is 477-1. In California, the average ratio is 945-1, putting the state in last place in the U.S.
In its current form, AB 8 doesn’t include a funding source, but according to his office, Assemblymember Chu has submitted a request to the state’s Senate and Assembly Budget Committees for $120 million in general fund monies to go directly toward implementing the bill.
Chu’s office explained that the dollar amount is based on the Assembly Appropriations Committee’s analysis of related legislation that Chu had also authored and was passed last year. Assembly Bill 2022 requires school districts to notify students and parents of the mental health services available at schools at least twice a year.
The coffers, according to Chu’s office would not come from Proposition 98, which governs the state’s funding for public schools and community colleges. Chu is looking to get the $120 million to implement AB 8 in the state’s budget bill that is expected to be voted on by lawmakers in mid-June.
Annie Pham, Chu’s spokesperson, said if the appropriation doesn’t get passed in the budget, the assemblymember could try to include it as an amendment in the bill.
At CUSD, the student population is currently more than 49,000. That would require the district to employ approximately 120 counselors – about 80 more than what it has now, according to CUSD Chief Communications Officer Ryan Burris.
The district spends around $3 million a year specifically for social and emotional counseling, Burris said. To cover the additional personnel costs associated with the mandate, the district would need about another $8.81 million in annual funding.
CUSD would like to hire more counselors, he noted, but the district is concerned with the lack of a funding source in the bill. If it were to pass without identified funding, that could require the district to comply with a mandate it can’t afford.
“I think the one area of concern over this specific legislation is that it’s unfunded. So it would require us to make a huge investment of dollars that we don’t have. And so that would come at a cost of other things,” Burris said. “If it was something that the state wanted to mandate and then pay for, that would be a huge investment in our students, and it would be welcomed. But without the investment of state money in it, it would be really hard for us to hit that mandate.”
For the California School Boards Association (CSBA), the lack of an identified funding source in AB 8 has also been a point of concern. A legislative analysis of the bill notes that the CSBA and the California Right to Life Committee, Inc. oppose the measure.
Erika Hoffman, a legislative advocate for CSBA, explained that the organization supports the intent of AB 8; however, its concerns lie with the implementation of the mandate, particularly in regard to funding and availability of qualified personnel.
“The goal is laudable, it’s great,” Hoffman said, adding that “the question comes of ‘how do we fund them?’ With the hard limit of 1 to 400, (CSBA is) not sure there’s enough out there, credentialed people, who are trained to actually fill those positions.”
“It’s great, but you’re asking to hire all these people, but we don’t have funding in the budget to hire all these people,” she later said.
The funding Chu is asking for, Hoffman said, would help school districts to comply with the mandate, but it’s likely not enough, and it could also mean another program or initiative doesn’t get funded.
“It’d make a dent, (but) I’m not sure it would get us the whole way,” Hoffman said. “When you think of the counselors, they’re about the same price as a teacher . . . and if it’s $100 million, what else doesn’t get done?”
When Chu first introduced AB 8, it called for districts to have one counselor for every 600 students, and he had planned to request $100 million to fund the measure. With the bill recently amended to mandate one counselor for every 400, Chu’s funding request went up to $120 million to account for the additional personnel.
“I know when they went to 400 to 1 it was like, ‘Wait a minute, the price just got more,’ ” Hoffman said. She also said, “It’s a laudable goal, and I appreciate that, but it’s ‘how do we get there?’ ”
The bill was passed out of the Assembly’s Committee on Education earlier this month and is currently sitting in the Assembly Health Committee, where it’s expected to be heard at the end of April, according to Chu’s office.