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Bipartisan disagreement is threatening to undermine efforts to enhance children's mental health services and psychologists' roles in the schools, making it increasingly unlikely that Congress will reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act before the session ends in October, says Adrienne Smith, PhD, the James Marshall Public Policy Scholar in APA's Public Policy Office.

Republicans want to give state and local school districts more control over education policy by providing block grants, while Democrats believe the federal government should identify specific concerns and then establish programs to address those problems.

If the two camps don't reach a compromise, Congress would still fund current education programs but place education reform on hold until the next session and delay efforts to enhance children's mental health services and psychologists' roles in public schools.

"We would need to start from ground zero with a new Congress in January, with new battles to be won and new legislation to be introduced," says Ellen Garrison, PhD, director of public interest policy in APA's Public Policy Office.

Education reform is also being hampered by differences in approaches between the House and Senate education bills. Whereas the Senate is considering a comprehensive Elementary and Secondary Education Act (S. 2), the House divided its version into four bills. Funding for mental health services is included in the Education Opportunities to Protect and Invest in Our Nation's Students Act (H.R. 4141). The bill would provide more than $1 billion for drug and violence prevention and education programs, including school-based mental health services.

Among its numerous provisions, the Senate bill would:

  • Maintain the Elementary School Counseling Demonstration program to increase counseling services provided by school psychologists, social workers and counselors. Many districts have only one psychologist who rotates among schools, says Stith, and schools could use this money to hire more psychologists.

  • Authorize $700 million for state and program grants for drug and violence prevention and education, including school-based mental health services. Although the bill doesn't outline specific types of counseling programs, it does encourage schools to collaborate with community agencies that may employ psychologists, says Stith.

Similarly, the House bill makes money for drug- and violence-prevention programs available to a range of mental health providers who could offer research-based interventions and evaluate prevention programs. Psychologists interested in providing these services would have to contract directly with their local school district, says Stith. H.R. 4141 would also expand the counseling demonstration program to serve secondary schools.

While the Senate is appropriating $30 million for the counseling program, the House provided zero funding. Accordingly, APA is urging the House to accede to the Senate funding level. Although the program was first authorized in 1994, it received only $2 million until fiscal year 2000. The program currently receives $20 million to provide 80 grants, ranging from $250,000 to $400,000, to establish or expand counseling services in elementary schools. These grants will be awarded to school districts this summer to provide additional funding for school-hired psychologists.

APA worked with the National Association of Social Workers, the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Counseling Association to try to weave language throughout the education bill to support a range of mental health services. But, Stith says, Congress has been slow to make the connection that mental health professionals can help make schools safer and increase student academic achievement. For instance, she says, the bill mandates schools to spend money on tangible fixes, such as metal detectors and school uniforms, to prevent drug use and violence, but it doesn't require schools to beef up their mental health programs.

"Metal detectors and school uniforms don't get to the root of the problem," says Stith. "Mental health professionals can identify children with behavioral, emotional and drug problems and get them help before there's any incident."

Clinicians and researchers could help design education programs or assist in assessing whether interventions are successful, says Karen Anderson, PhD, director of the Center of Psychology in the Schools and Education in APA's Education Directorate.

"Psychologists should have a place at the table if we're talking about how best to increase achievement for at-risk kids," says Anderson. "Psychological research should be the underpinning of any program funded by this act."