Federal Fiscal Year 2013 started Oct. 1, and to avoid a potential government shutdown, Congress passed legislation at the end of September to maintain funding for federal agencies at current levels until the end of March. Although the partisan disagreement in Washington between the two political parties is at historically high levels, lawmakers on both sides chose to resolve their disputes on this year’s spending (at least for the first half of the year) to let them focus on bigger issues: the November elections and several huge budget and tax issues they need to tackle before Jan. 1.

Enactment of the continuing resolution means programs within the Department of Education, including the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program and others of interest to school counselors, will continue to be supported. However, all federal government programs will be cut significantly in January under automatic budget sequestration rules put in place.  The sequestration (a fancy word for spending cuts) will take effect for health, social services, education and other program spending, as well as defense spending, at the beginning of January unless Congress and President Obama jointly enact a deficit reduction package by the end of 2012. Although funding for the first half of FY 2013 has been provided, federal agencies are unlikely to spend money freely because it is hard to predict what will happen on the broader federal budget picture or what the political landscape will look like next year.

U.S. student-to-school counselor ratio rises

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) within the U.S. Department of Education has released updated data on the number of students and school counselors in U.S. elementary and secondary schools for both the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years. According to the figures, the national average student-to-counselor ratio has increased significantly since the 457:1 ratio reported for the 2008-2009 school year. The American Counseling Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of no more than 250:1.

With the effects of the economic downturn on state and local government spending, the national average student-to-counselor ratio edged up to 459:1 in 2009-2010 and then rose significantly in 2010-2011 to 471:1. NCES data indicate that U.S. elementary and secondary schools had 2,400 fewer school counselors in 2010-2011 than they had in 2009-2010, while the U.S. student population grew by more than 120,000 students.

Despite the overall trend, 13 states improved their student-to-counselor ratios from the previous school year. More information on individual states’ professional school counselor trends is available on the ACA Public Policy and Legislation website at counseling.org/publicpolicy. For more information on how you can advocate for school counselors, please contact Jessica Eagle at jeagle@counseling.org.

Members of Congress continue asking VA to hire more counselors

ACA has been renewing its push toward more grass-roots organization and having ACA members engage in advocacy themselves. At the Institute for Leadership Training in July, ACA leaders from across the country took their message directly to Capitol Hill and asked that federal lawmakers begin focusing on issues that matter the most to counselors and the profession.

This work continues to bear fruit, with Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) becoming the latest member of Congress to write to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki to urge the VA to work harder to bring licensed professional mental health counselors on staff at VA facilities. Jones is a past recipient of the ACA Federal Legislative Service Award for his work in pushing for independent practice authority for counselors within the TRICARE health care program for military families and retirees.

Counseling leaders from North Carolina met with staff in Jones’ office in July to discuss the dire need to improve veterans’ access to mental health treatment in VA facilities by hiring more clinicians and the very slow pace of counselor hiring. Thanks to their efforts, Jones agreed to send a letter to Shinseki asking that the VA:

1) Create paid training positions for counselors

2) Issue guidance to the VA medical community regarding the hiring of licensed professional counselors

3) Adopt “grandfathering” provisions that would expand eligibility provisions for positions

4) Work with ACA in filling vacancies in the VA

The fact that we succeeded in working with Jones to send a letter to the VA after just one meeting demonstrates the power that individual counselors have to influence policy in Washington.

All too often, many of us think our voices will not be heard. Often, advocacy work does not result in success (at least initially), but the times when it does are the result of advocates speaking up, working together and being persistent. ACA is committed to giving counselors the tools they need to influence the policymaking process. To find out how you can be an advocate for the profession and how to use your time most efficiently in doing this, contact Art Terrazas at aterrazas@counseling.org or 800.347.6647 ext. 242. u