Tribune Op-ed: We need to focus on funding social services in schools

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune

The talk about funding education during a legislative session usually circles around Utah’s low per-pupil spending, the state’s high proportion of school-aged kids, the high proportion of taxes dedicated to education and the reluctance of lawmakers and their constituents to support tax increases. These concerns are balanced by a genuine support for improving Utah’s education system, consideration of a modest property tax increase and measures for greater accountability.

In the midst of this discussion, most of us assume that “education money” goes to teachers’ salaries and benefits, occupancy and other costs for maintaining and furnishing buildings, curricular materials, hardware and software for digital teaching and learning and other educational infrastructures. We wonder why the substantial amount of money provided for education doesn’t ever seem to be enough. We cite statistics demonstrating that money alone doesn’t improve test scores and that Utah does a pretty good job of educating its students in any case. We identify and worry about low teacher salaries as a significant reason that teachers leave their positions in large numbers after their fifth year or so of teaching.

What we don’t talk about is the fundamental reality that schools are the state’s largest distributor of essential social services as mandated by state and federal laws. We don’t openly acknowledge that “education funding” is simply not enough to finance these multifarious social services, and that this deficit affects everything from student achievement to teacher retention. As teachers, lawmakers and citizens, we all recognize that a child’s welfare is integral to her ability to receive an education. But can any of us seriously suggest that the monies now appropriated for education are enough to pay for the broad and mandated social services provided by schools?

It may surprise most citizens of our state to learn that our public schools are required to provide medical screenings and medical services, homeless and hardship screenings and provisions, mental health evaluations and services, some legal services and broad-ranging family improvement and crisis prevention services that promote stronger communities, equality and opportunity. This short list does not include the provision of food, supervision and adult education that schools provide, depending on the needs of particular communities and individuals, and many other similar services.

I acknowledge state support for big-ticket items, like transportation, as well as substantial Title I support for federally mandated social services in qualifying schools. Yet most state-mandated social services are unfunded or rolled into per-pupil funding.

Our failure to focus on funding social services in schools creates deficits both in providing these services and in educating students. These deficits also cause teachers to leave the profession. Teachers do not leave because of an unwillingness to be accountable, to work hard or to provide significant support to a difficult or needy student. Rather, teachers recognize after about five years in the profession that, in the absence of adequate funding for qualified nurses, mental health professionals, behavior specialists, social workers and other specialized providers, the teachers themselves are held legally liable for providing these social services. Teachers are essentially subsidizing schools’ provision of social services from their salaries and their blood, sweat and tears.

If Utah is to create the excellence in education that most of our citizens philosophically support, we need to consider funding schools not only as places of education, but also as institutions providing our most accessible and comprehensive social services. A system of funding that recognizes the social role of schools could be phased in over 10 years or so. Legislators could search for additional monies by assessing a reasonable tax on oil and gas companies and by maintaining property and income taxes.

Perhaps legislators could also consider distributing social services through a cost-effective model like that of the educational services of Utah’s Rural Schools Association. In these consortia, the state provides infrastructural funds, while service providers are shared, and users pay a fee to participate.

I encourage legislators to begin to change the nature of the discussion about funding education to include a recognition of the significant and mandated provision of welfare provided by schools. Even this year, legislators could support the proposed pilot program for counselors in elementary schools as a first step, and they could begin to consider for next year’s session a comprehensive, phased-in plan to fund properly the provision of social services in schools.

Cynthia Kimball Phillips is executive director of the Weilenmann School of Discovery and an educational policy adviser to the Alliance for a Better Utah.

To read The Salt Lake Tribune op-ed here

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