Outsourcing School Health Professionals Hurts Students Most

Outsourcing health and human service professionals, including nurses, psychologists, counselors, speech, occupational, and physical therapists has drawn a lot of attention in the nation’s public schools in recent years. Districts have hoped to save money by privatizing health services, but contracting out positions like nurses and counselors for cheaper rates to “lessen the burden” on administrators’ shrinking school budgets comes with a cost.

“School health personnel are critical to student success. They are the key to addressing the many non-academic barriers to learning faced by students and their families,” says Jerry Newberry, Executive Director of the NEA Health Information Network. “These school staff members need to be able to work closely with teachers and other members of the school community to support students. When these jobs are contracted out, these critical relationships can be broken and students will be poorly served.”

Outsourcing of health-related school personnel is happening in districts around the country.  The Amesbury, Massachusetts district is looking to outsource the employment of its special education aides to a private company, initially affecting about 60 staff members. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the Octorara District outsourced speech and occupational therapists to the lowest bidding private company, in what some parents called a threat to the consistency of services. And in California, school health service professionals are being cut and replaced with voluntary nonprofit organizations.

The same is happening at Angie Gustafson’s small school district in Washington state.

Gustafson is a student services coordinator for the middle school and high school in Clarkston County. Her job is very similar to that of a school counselor – she provides guidance and support to students, especially in dealing with personal or school-related problems that interfere with learning. She’s also a resource for students and families interested in general education curriculum, special education, character education, personal safety, and the general well-being of students.

Students struggling behaviorally or emotionally are sent to see Gustafson. However, if Gustafson is unavailable or working at another school, an AmeriCorps member steps in to address the issue. She says that this is not sufficient to address student needs because the AmeriCorps assistant simply doesn’t have the necessary training to handle the emotional issues of high needs students, and addressing their disruptive behaviors can be extremely challenging.

“I watch kids hurt everyday and struggle to learn. I know that cutting support resources like counselors hurts kids even more,” Gustafson says.

Gustafson’s district also contracts with a local occupational therapy business. “Our district pays them to provide case management, and their therapists then come in to work with students in the schools,” Gustafson says. “But when they’re not there, it’s up to us to perform the exercises and stretches with the students on top of everything else we’re trying to do. The work doesn’t decrease, and this impacts how easily and quickly students’ issues can be addressed.”

She says that between legislative changes, unfunded mandates and constantly changing laws, educators are expected to do more, for many more students, with fewer resources and support staff. And all of that with no additional compensation – and sometimes with less.

“This kind of outsourcing, under-sourcing, and de-sourcing going in my district and in other districts around the country is having a serious impact on learning and achievement,” says Gustafson.

Please check back in early spring for the next in NEA Today’s series on outsourcing school health and human services professionals.