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What is the Cost of Providing Students with Adequate Psychological Support
School psychologists play an important role in today's public schools. A recent report from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) stated that school psychologists, with expertise in both education and mental health, can help to address such issues as "... poverty, mental and behavioral health issues, bullying, homelessness, increasing cultural and linguistic diversity". Add to this the fact that school psychologists can also promote school safety and effective school crisis response and prevention. However, it has become common knowledge that our country currently has a significant and critical shortage of school psychologists working in our public schools. To better understand the scope of these shortages, we need a better handle on how many additional school psychologists are required to meet our students' needs and what it would cost to get to this appropriate level.
The Current Shortage
To provide a comprehensive range of school psychological services in our public schools, NASP recommends a ratio of 1 school psychologist to every 500 to 700 students enrolled in the schools served. So, how do our schools measure up to these recommended levels of support? NASP recently surveyed 763 school psychologists in 24 states; using our own methodology, we found an estimated student to school psychologist ratio of 1,408 to one. Using either the 700:1 or 500:1 ratio, our public schools are short between 35,163 and 63,135 school psychologists, respectively, needed to provide our students with the full range of psychological services and supports that they need.
What Does the Shortage Mean for Students?
While school psychologists provide a range of services and supports to all students in our schools; however, a large part of their day is often dedicated to serving students with disabilities. Under the recommended ratios, a school psychologist would serve between 65 and 91 students receiving special education services. However, under the current ratios, the average school psychologist would be expected to support the needs of an estimated 183 students receiving special education services and an additional 21 students with 504 plans. That means that the average school psychologist today is expected to serve over 200 students with identified needs - which leaves little to no time to support the other 1,200 enrolled students who could benefit from critical prevention and early intervention services provided by school psychologists. Further, the current ratio limits school psychologists' ability to engage in consultation with families and teachers to help them support students at home and in the classroom.
The Cost of Providing Adequate Psychological Support
So, what would it cost to provide our public schools with an adequate number of school psychologists? Information from Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the average salary for a school psychologist is $77,430. That means if we are short by between 35,163 and 63,135 school psychologists then it would cost our public education system between $2.7 and $4.9 billion annually to meet NASP's recommended ratios. While that sounds like a great deal of money - to put this into perspective it would only equate to an increase in education spending in this country of between 0.45% and 0.8%.
Funding Alone is Not the Answer
In the end, the issue of providing our students with access to adequate school psychological services and supports is both a financial issue and an issue of a lack of qualified personnel. Even if the funding were available, it is doubtful that there are between 35,000 and 63,000 additional qualified school psychologists out there for our public schools to hire. In fact, with only an estimated 35,000 currently practicing school psychologists, we would need to more than double the existing workforce. Policymakers in most states will need to deal with this shortage through a two-pronged approach - first, they could make additional resources available to schools to hire more school psychologists when they are available. Second, states could work with their higher education systems to improve the pipeline of qualified school psychologists by increasing the availability of graduate preparation programs and other strategies to recruit and retain qualified school psychologists. NASP recently released a Shortages in School Psychology Resource Guide outlining strategies for districts and states. How quickly each state will be able to meet the recommended ratios will vary. Vermont, for example, would need an additional 36 to 86 school psychologists to meet the recommended ratio. If additional funding were available it might be possible for Vermont to meet the recommended ratio in a couple of years. In contrast, Georgia's public schools currently need to hire between 1,733 and 2,720 psychologists to meet the recommended ratio. It could take Georgia a decade or more to recruit, train, and/or hire a sufficient number of school psychologists to fill that gap.
Looking for Long Term Solutions
When I first started thinking about this issue I believed that it could be solved by simply providing additional funding to schools. However, as stated above, additional funding alone will not be sufficient to address this issue. Public schools will need to work with state policymakers and higher education institutions to address this issue. Policymakers need to work with higher education institutions to find a way to increase the number of qualified school psychologists in their state. States then need to provide additional funding so that schools can hire the personnel that they need. This is an issue that could take some states ten years or more to solve - but it's worth a decade of work to provide our public-school students with the support that they need.