As the N.C. Association of Educators rallies at the state capitol this week, the left-leaning teacher’s group has a specific list of demands.
Right at the top: More money for school counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, and librarians to “adequately staff” North Carolina public schools.
This claim has largely gone unchallenged. But as the May 1 teacher strike approaches, Longleaf Politics decided to do a little fact-checking.
How many counselors, social workers and nurses would be enough? Who decides? And is any state meeting these supposed benchmarks?
The answers to the first two questions are easy enough to figure out. Other branches of the N.C. Association of Educators have specified that they’re pushing for the state to hire enough staff to meet “nationally recognized student-to-professional ratios.”
But digging into these numbers reveals some interesting finds. First, these “nationally recognized” numbers appear to be arbitrary — and at the very least, are far from impartial.
North Carolina also ranks well above the national average for several of the staff positions the N.C. Association of Educators cites. For the rest, our state isn’t too far off.
Here’s what we found.
The “nationally recognized” ratios aren’t based in science
For all five staff positions, these professional-to-student ratios have been published by trade associations — like the National Association of School Psychologists and the American School Counselor Association.
Many haven’t been updated in years, and few provide justifications for the numbers they chose. Most acknowledge that conditions vary across different types of schools. If there are explanations behind the recommended ratios, they’re generally centered on creating a “reasonable workload” for the staff — not what’s most effective for the student.
This is important to understand. These ratios were created by lobbying organizations whose primary job it is to get more people hired.
Further, virtually no states meet the “nationally recognized” ratios. We’ll dive deeper into each category using the best available data.
North Carolina is a national leader in school librarian staffing
Out of all five positions cited by the N.C. Association of Educators, the librarian standard seems the most logical. The recommendation is to have one professional librarian in every public school.
North Carolina is very close to this mark, and is one of the best in the nation for librarian staffing levels.
According to a report from the National Education Association, North Carolina tied for 6th in the nation with 91% of schools having one. With a percentage this high, it’s possible that schools without a professional librarian are co-located with another public school that has one or share access to a county-run library.
Further, 88% of North Carolina’s school librarians are state certified, above the 82 percent national average. Even more impressive, 81% have a masters degree in a library science field, well above the 50% national average.
North Carolina exceeds the national average for school counselors
The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students. This is a wildly ambitious ratio that only three states in the country meet, according to a recent report — New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming.
Vermont and Wyoming are the two smallest states by population in the United States. New Hampshire is No. 41.
The national average is one counselor for every 482 students. North Carolina has a significantly better ratio, at 1:386.
North Carolina has also increased the percentage of school counselors faster than enrollment growth, maintaining a steady ratio even as the state booms.
North Carolina has a nurse in the majority of public schools
The National Association of School Nurses recommends a school nurse to student ratio of 750 to 1.
North Carolina’s is slightly higher, with one for every 1,112 students. The state has its own goal for nurse staffing, trying to hit one nurse for every public school.
We’re not quite there yet. According to the Department of Public Instruction, the state has 1,318 full-time nurses for 2,313 schools.
In some areas, nurses serve multiple schools. Some schools share a campus, which makes this easier.
Muddying the waters, Medicaid funding pays a significant portion for nurses — and some North Carolina school districts simply haven’t applied for money from the federal government to pay for them.
In any case, North Carolina’s nurse-to-student ratio puts it right in the middle of the nation, according to the NEA.
North Carolina’s school psychologist problem is in supply, not funding
The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one psychologist for every 1,000 students. North Carolina is closer to one for every 2,000.
However, again, this “recommended” ratio is wildly unreasonable. Only seven states in the country met this ratio in the 2009–2010 school year, the most recent year for which data was available. Nearly half of states had 1,500 or more students per psychologist.
North Carolina’s major problem with psychologists has been finding enough. The state had about 75 vacant positions last year. To help address the problem, the General Assembly has passed a law that makes it easier for licensed professional psychologists from other states to qualify to work in public schools.
There’s no good data on school social workers
The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students. North Carolina appears to be around 1:1,500 — but good numbers are hard to find. Different news accounts have reported very different figures.
In any case, this seems like a major failing at first glance. But North Carolina appears to be much better in this regard than many other states. For example, the ratio in Pennsylvania is 2,285 students for each school social worker.
There’s room for reasonable debate on school support staffing levels
But keep in mind as teachers go on strike: North Carolina is in a far better place than they’d like you to believe.