Shortage of school psychologists in Georgia threatens academic and mental health needs

Matthew J. Vignieri is a school psychologist in Hall County and co-chair of the Advocacy Committee of the Georgia Association of School Psychologists.

In this essay, he discusses an issue that gets little public attention in Georgia, the shortage of school psychologists.

By Matthew J. Vignieri

School psychologists in Georgia are struggling to meet the demands of high caseloads due to a severe shortage of professionals in the field.  These mental health specialists are typically employed by school systems and apply practical principles of psychology to improve educational outcomes.  A critical component of their work includes psychological evaluation, where they administer and interpret assessments of intelligence, psychological processing, and/or emotional well-being; the importance of these measures is accentuated by federal mandates requiring that they be utilized as part of a student’s eligibility for special education services.

Due to the shortage, school psychologist struggle to meet deadlines for these evaluations and have little time to utilize other aspects of their training including counseling and consultation with schools, families, students, and community providers.  Ironically, their ability to help develop and implement academic, social, emotional, and/or life-skills interventions can prevent many common problems from occurring in the first place, thus reducing the need for special education evaluations and services.  Regardless, having so few school psychologists ultimately leads to high evaluation caseloads which therefore make it difficult for an individual psychologist to assist in ways aside from assessment.

The effects that the shortage has on families in Georgia are as numerous and unique as the problems children can face.  One issue centers on the time it takes for a student to be assessed.  A child with a learning disorder may struggle in a general education setting for years before being evaluated and found eligible for specialized instruction. By that time, they are multiple grade levels behind their peers.

In some cases, catching up is impossible.  Children with emotional needs are worse off in many ways, as therapeutic services are not yet offered as part of special education plans.  Their parents may have to wait months for assessment results that are needed to make informed decisions regarding private mental healthcare.

National and state leaders in the field are still working to understand the extent of the shortage.  While there are close to 770 school psychologists overseeing Georgia’s estimated 1.6 million students, there are more than 50 available positions across the state.  Many of these positions will likely go unfilled during the 2016/2017 school year.

Determining the complex reasons behind the shortage is a work in progress, but it is certain that training comes into play somewhere. Over the past five years, an average of 27 school psychologists graduated from one of three training programs at Georgia State University, Georgia Southern University, or the University of Georgia. This past year only 18 students in total graduated from these programs.  Several of these will leave the public sector and/or state entirely in search of better work conditions, higher pay, and the ability to practice more broadly; all of this is available to some extent in surrounding states.  On the other end of the career timeline, the fact that a large percentage of school psychologists are eligible for retirement within five years is a factor that will compound the shortage in Georgia in the future.

It is likely that there is no one solution to increase the number of school psychologists across the state; doing so will necessitate a combined effort between national and state leaders in the field, legislators, school psychologist trainers, school administrators, and community members.  As some members of the public are unaware that school psychologists even exist, primary efforts must be towards promoting the practice, and thereby the shortage, more effectively. School psychologists, myself included, must try harder to attend school board meetings and meet with local and state legislators.  We must go beyond simply writing policy-makers, to sitting down face to face, extending our services, and building relationships.  And by all means, it is imperative that we become more active in local, state, and/or national school psychology and educator associations.

At the university level, school psychology trainers must put forth greater effort toward improving the internship process for certification in the field.  There is an abysmal lack of paid internships in Georgia, which leaves many prospective school psychologists with no choice but to finish their training in other states.  For example, the school psychology program at Ohio University is strategically partnered with their state’s Department of Education to offer internships with a salary close to $40,000.  Interns in Mississippi earn between $25,000 and $30,000 per year.  Georgia’s school psychology training programs are encouraged to form a coalition to improve the internship process via strong partnerships with not only with the Department of Education but every school system across the state.

As with many educational initiatives in our society, funding is one barrier toward increasing the numbers of school psychologists in Georgia.  While the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act provides several new opportunities for financing school psychologist’s efforts to improve school climate, federal House and Senate Appropriations Committees must commit to fully funding such initiatives.  Therefore, I implore legislators at all levels to support full funding for ESSA Title IV, particularly Part A.

Once appropriated, Georgia legislators must do everything possible to bring the state’s decades old funding formula for school psychologist positions into alignment with National Association of School Psychologist recommendations that one psychologist serve no more than 1000 students; the fact that school psychologists in Georgia have been funded at a state-wide ratio of 1:2475 for almost a quarter-century is completely unacceptable.

I challenge community members to imagine what Georgia would look like if it were possible to have a school psychologist in every single school building.  What is the potential for other sectors of our society after 10 years of teaching children in a manner that not only improves their academic well-being, but their emotional development and social potential?  I believe that Georgia is able to lead the way here, and increasing the number of school psychologists is just one step of many in a direction that will be of benefit to our society’s most important resource: our children.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.