In the last 30 years, poverty has increased in Wisconsin, and nationally, 1 in 6 children live in poverty, making them the poorest age group. Anxiety and depression are rising among our students too, and the pandemic did not help curb either of these.
My goal as state superintendent is to work with our school administrators and our different professional organizations and private-public partners in mental health to bring more training to our staff, but also provide more on-site mental health services for our students and families. In a rural area especially, where there are shortages, the needs are critical. As our children and staff weather this pandemic, the need is greater than ever before.
Across our state, there is a shortage of mental health providers, and there are limitations in Wisconsin as to which providers can work in schools. I would work with the legislature to change the rules to allow individuals who are trained professionals to leave private practice and work in the public schools. In addition, I would advocate with educator licensing programs in the UW System throughout the state such as Platteville, La Crosse, Superior, and Eau Claire to revisit their social work programs and offer master degree programs. In this case, we should allow school social workers to start with a bachelor’s degree and work toward a masters degree to advance in their career.
Next, we need to provide the allocated school mental health funding directly to schools in the form of personnel instead of making funds available as competitive grants. Again, my agenda focuses on equity, disrupting those factors that create generational poverty, and disrupting the cycle of poverty that inequity in our society exacerbates. Due to unmet mental health needs, children in middle and high school are introduced at a young age to the criminal justice system, and unmet mental health needs factor into Wisconsin’s very active school-to-prison pipeline.
We need to review how we staff our schools in general, and this would be a great place to start. For example, can we agree that every school building needs to have a school nurse, a social worker, and a mental health professional? Then let us move forward from there. Again, this would come back to the revision of the school finance formula to ensure we make these positions a reality. In this COVID-19 pandemic, we see that these professionals are needed more than ever. The commitment from the state would come in the form of funding but also in reviewing and revising our educator licensing for school pupil services personnel. DPI would need to make minimum staffing recommendations and perhaps allocate more resources to our school districts with the lowest local financial resources specifically for mental health needs.