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For years, North Carolina has been ranked as one of the lowest states for education funding — a situation that has had a ripple effect for mental health support for students.

In January, the Education Law Center ranked North Carolina at No. 48 out of 51 states (including Washington, D.C.) for education funding. Heather Koons, the communications director for Public Schools First NC, said when schools can’t afford the appropriate number of specialized support staff, students don’t get the mental and behavioral health support that they need.

In 1994, a set of students, parents and school districts in five counties filed the Leandro v. State of North Carolina landmark case. In 1997, the N.C. Supreme Court decided that the state had a constitutional obligation to provide a sound, basic education for all students. That decision led to a 30-year-long battle for public schools to receive more funding from the North Carolina legislature.

Following the Leandro decision, no significant changes have been made to fully fund the Leandro plan, despite multiple court cases affirming that the legislature has an obligation to do so — most recently in November 2022. During the 2022-23 fiscal year, North Carolina finished with a more than $3 billion surplus, and the education budget fell $443 million short of fully funding the Leandro Plan for the year.

“So it's not that we don't have the money, it's that certain legislators are choosing not to spend it on our schools. And I think that point needs to be made very clear,” Koons said.

The cost of education varies from district to district, and some counties struggle to afford the bare minimum for their schools, said Stuart Egan, a public school teacher and public schools advocate.As a result, many schools across the state struggle to maintain facilities and staff, he said.

“It is incumbent that the state makes sure that those needs are fulfilled, because they are tasked with it through the state constitution,” Egan said.

Mental health, Egan said, while not an actual line item in the budget, is tied to other essential budget items and resources, such as nurses and counselors. 

Koons said that when schools can’t afford the appropriate number of specialized support staff, students don’t get the mental and behavioral health support that they need.

The nationally recommended ratio for schools is one psychologist to 500 students, according to Public Schools First NC's website. As of 2023, the actual ratio in North Carolina public schools is one psychologist to 1,979 students. The recommended ratio for school counselors is one counselor to 250 students, while the actual ratio in the state is one counselor to 361 students. 

Public school teacher Kim Mackey said not having enough counselors in a school increases the existing counselors’ caseloads and limits opportunities to build rapport and assist students on a personal level.

As a result, students bring their emotional challenges into the classroom, she said — and, naturally, those issues affect learning. 

Egan said because of these shifts in the classroom, teachers are tasked with a responsibility to support students far beyond their academic needs. Plus, Egan said North Carolina has developed a reputation for paying its teachers poorly. The added responsibility, coupled with relatively low compensation, has dramatic effects on teacher well-being, he said.

“You can't you can't put students first, as everybody wants to say, if you're putting teachers on the back burner,” Egan said.

Mackey said the high amounts of teacher turnover in North Carolina makes it difficult for students to have access to a consistent set of adults with experience in supporting learning.

“But there's a huge difference between saying content, and teaching students to understand it," Mackey said. "So if you don't really understand the kids that you're working with, or have more experience of how to navigate different classroom dynamics, it doesn't matter how much content you know, they're not going to listen if you can't manage a classroom, and engage students."

She also said less experience and more students per teacher affect the relationships students and teachers are able to build in the classroom.

Egan said teachers are often the first people to hear about students’ problems, even if they aren’t academic. He said it’s important to remember that all students, regardless of their background or who they are, have needs.

“I think that it's apparent that students are expressing an increased interest in receiving mental health support," Mackey said. "And as they're trying to juggle a variety of identities, whether it's their in person, or their online identity, that's a lot for a kid just trying to develop like who they are as a person to have these simultaneous identities. So when students are asking for help, I think the responsible thing is to help."


@DTHCityState |

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