Monday, May 27, 2024

Tennessee should invest in students’ mental health needs over expanding school vouchers

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Tennessee school districts now more than ever need a larger infusion of state funds to bolster their efforts to address children’s education and mental health needs.

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  • Carolyn Heinrich is a University Distinguished Professor and the Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy, Education and Economics at Vanderbilt University.

The Tennessee state legislature has approved a state budget that includes $144 million to create a statewide school voucher program, which is no longer on the table for implementation this year.

Although Gov. Bill Lee intends to pursue education freedom scholarships again next year, some of those funds could be allocated to cope with a financial crisis that will be looming for many school districts across the state when the next school year begins.

The federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds that school districts have relied on to meet a range of pandemic-related challenges—including substantial student learning losses, rising mental health needs, and the costs of reopening schools—will soon expire.

Because school districts with a higher proportion of low-income families received more ESSER funds and Southern states have more children living in poverty and relatively lower state spending on schools the loss of ESSER funds is going to hit Tennessee school district budgets especially hard.

Tennessee faces a challenge on meeting youth mental health needs

Across Tennessee, many school districts have used the ESSER funds to hire licensed social workers, behavioral health therapists, school nurses, crisis counselors, and other professionals to address the dramatic increase in children’s mental health conditions.

The surge in depression, anxiety, and suicidal behaviors among children is evident in our research using state administrative data, and the latest Vanderbilt Child Health poll found that half of Tennessee parents rate their children’s emotional well-being as a top concern.

These parents’ concerns are well-founded as children with unmet mental health needs are more likely to experience disciplinary problems, chronic absences, high school dropout, and poorer functioning as adults. Yet we are doing considerably worse in Tennessee than other states in making mental health care accessible to youth, coming in 41st among the 50 states and DC in the 2023 State of Mental Health in America report.

Tennessee’s challenges in meeting the mental health needs of youth are intensified by the state’s low mental health workforce availability. Tennessee ranks 47th among the states and DC on this indicator, reflecting that greater than 70% of youth with mental health needs go untreated. Some school districts, especially in rural areas, have struggled to fill positions and retain mental health services staff on their limited budgets.

Governor Lee has recognized both the high levels of need for mental and behavioral health supports among Tennessee children and how our current infrastructure is strained to serve them, and if he wants to make good on his stated intent to invest more in behavioral health, he might begin by increasing funding for one of the state’s constant and most valuable assets for responding to children’s mental health needs: its Coordinated School Health (CSH) program.

First introduced in 2008, coordinated school health has now expanded to nearly every school district in the state, where CSH directors partner with other school staff, community organizations, and families to facilitate and improve the health and academic supports available to students. Schools are frequently firsthand observers of children’s mental health needs, particularly for rural, economically disadvantaged, and historically underserved children, so these CSH efforts play a critical role in helping to bridge gaps between children’s needs and their access to healthcare and other supports.

Yet our state’s coordinated school health program is presently woefully underfunded, and ESSER funds will soon not be available to plug the holes. The CSH program has not received funding increases to keep pace with either rising student needs or the higher costs of staffing programs. CSH directors across the state instead struggle to finance student supports with a patchwork of funding that is often time-limited and narrow in focus, while relying on a web of community partners that are also struggling to sustain their infrastructure in the face of staffing shortages.

More: Data confirms the anecdotes: Tennessee students’ mental health is vital to their success

Tennessee must invest more to address children’s mental health needs

Reporting on the use of ESSER funds nationwide suggests that nearly half of those monies have gone to labor costs, and our data collection in Tennessee supports the concern that many of those recently hired (e.g., counselors, social workers, and behavior health therapists) are now at risk of being laid off.  

As one CSH director put it plainly, “I’m automatically going to lose that person next year. There are not enough funds.” With our students “nowhere close” to catching up from the pandemic learning losses, we cannot afford this loss of crucial student supports.

Tennessee school districts now more than ever need a larger infusion of state funds to bolster their efforts to address children’s education and mental health needs, and substantial funds have been approved in the state budget that could be deployed to start better meeting those needs now.

Carolyn Heinrich is a University Distinguished Professor and the Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy, Education and Economics at Vanderbilt University.

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