Student mental health should be a top concern when lawmakers return to Lansing

By Chandra Madafferi, MEA President and CEO

With last week’s passage of the state’s new education budget, Michigan families and educators have cause to celebrate — and legislators have some work yet to do when they return to the Capitol.

First, the good news. To help address the shortage of qualified teachers and school support staff affecting schools across the state, more than 100,000 school employees across Michigan will get a much-needed 3% of their salaries back in their pockets.

Hardworking educators have sacrificed 3% of their wages for over a decade to help pay off debt on the state’s school retiree health care plan. The retiree health plan is now fully funded, so it makes sense to remove that tax on school employees.

The budget will also reduce school districts’ retirement payroll taxes by 5.75%, allowing our local schools to invest an additional $598 million in our students and school staff. Altogether, school districts will receive an average $400 per-pupil increase to help students learn.

These changes respect the decade of financial sacrifices made by educators to fund a strong retiree health plan. They also keep Michigan on track toward paying off the larger school employee pension unfunded liability by 2038.

The state budget also includes funding for free universal community college and funding increases for Michigan’s public universities and colleges, which have been top priorities for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. These investments will help build a trained, educated workforce that can attract new jobs and investments to our state.

However, there is still a lot of work left to accomplish, especially when it comes to adequately funding school safety and student mental health.

As a teacher and as a parent, I know I’m not alone in saying that nothing is more important than the health and safety of our children. Between the effects of the pandemic, school violence, social media toxicity and so much more, our students have had a rough few years when it comes to their mental health.

Schools are often the first point of contact for students struggling with mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and they can provide children with early intervention and a supportive environment.

However, Michigan has a serious shortage of school-based mental health professionals available to address students’ needs. For example, while the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one school counselor for every 250 students, Michigan ranks second-to-last in the nation with only one counselor per 598 students. Our state continues to face similar shortages in school-based psychologists and social workers.

We have made some progress in the past few years, thanks to the governor and Legislature’s initiatives designed to attract more mental health professionals into the education field. According to the state Department of Education, Michigan has added more than 1,000 helping professionals to our schools since 2018.

It’s critical that we build on that progress. That’s why the Michigan Education Association is urging state lawmakers to pass a back-to-school supplemental budget that increases average per-pupil funding and invests in student safety and mental health safety, so our schools can provide the safe, nurturing learning environment that students need to reach their full potential.

With proper funding for mental health services, our schools can hire more mental health professionals who can work to identify and address relatively minor issues before they spiral out of control.

Michigan students — particularly those already struggling at school because of their mental health — are counting on educators and parents to advocate on their behalf.

We look forward to working collaboratively with the governor and lawmakers this summer, fall and beyond to ensure taxpayer dollars are invested wisely to support the needs of our students and the educators who serve them.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, Michigan Education Association President Chandra Madafferi, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Executive Secretary-Treasurer Tom Lutz and selected Service Employees International Union members.

(Posted as submitted to Detroit News)

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