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Duncan Urges States to Invest in Counselors, Still Moves to Consolidate Aid

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is urging state chiefs to do everything they can to support school counselors and get the most mileage possible out of federal funds to train them. But the Obama administration has continually sought to consolidate the main federal program that finances K-12 counselors, to the chagrin of advocates.

In a letter sent to chief state school officers Monday—which earned him a shout out from First Lady Michelle Obama in a speech to the American School Counselor Association—Duncan argued that school counselors can be a powerful force in students lives helping them to "reach their highest aspirations." But federal civil rights data has shown that one in five high schools doesn't have a counselor on staff. What's more, counselors are often stretched thin and asked to work on non-counseling activities, he wrote.

Duncan encouraged state officials to take a look at how federal funds can help contribute to "a systemic and sustainable approach to supporting school counselors in meeting increased professional demands," in part by bolstering professional development.

He even helpfully attached a list of federal programs that can support those efforts, which included the School Improvement Grant program, Title I money for disadvantaged students, and grants to states to improve teacher quality.

Topping the list: The nearly $50 million Elementary and Secondary Education Counseling program, the only program in the U.S. Department of Education aimed solely at K-12 counselors, including guidance counselors, school social workers, and psychologists.

But, in budget request after budget request, the administration has tried to consolidate that program into a broader, more flexible funding stream aimed at boosting student wellness. Advocates, including the National Association of School Psychologists, say that could cause the counseling program to lose its focus. What's more, the move could put it at risk for elimination, particularly in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republicans have often zeroed-out education programs that the administration has sought to push into broader funding streams.

On the other hand, the group the first lady spoke to, the American School Counselor Association, has fought for the program's survival, but doesn't come out against the consolidation idea in this memo to its members on a Senate bill that would have implemented the plan. 

What's more, the Obama administration has pushed for increased investment in mental health in schools, through other programs, including Project Prevent, a $10 milllion fund aimed at combating school and community violence, noted Dorie Nolt, an Education Department spokeswoman. The president even sought an increase for the program in its most recent budget request, she added.

And consolidating the guidance counseling program could help ensure that the dollars are better invested, Nolt said. "Limited federal education resources available for counseling and other activities to promote successful, safe, and healthy students are best targeted to building state and local capacity in this area rather than directly supporting specific services," Nolt said in an email. 

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