Mar 11, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Republicans seize counselor shortage to push school chaplains

Illustration of a pencil drawing the letter t in the shape of two crosses on a lined sheet of paper

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Republican-led states are pushing to allow chaplains in public schools, aiming to address a persistent shortage of counselors.

Why it matters: The youth mental health crisis and an uptick in school shootings have plagued the education system. But the idea of putting religious figures on school grounds has drawn sharp criticism for constitutional and safety reasons from civil rights groups, faith groups and chaplains themselves.

  • Since Texas introduced its own blueprint last year, allowing schools to use safety funds to hire chaplains who do not have the same licensing as counselors, similar bills have ricocheted across more than a dozen states, including Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, Utah and Kansas.
  • In Oklahoma, chaplain bills recently fell apart, though critics warn they might not be gone forever.
  • In some states' bills, parental consent is not required, nor is the level of training, expertise and licensing typically required of school counselors.
  • "It is not the role of public schools to serve the kids with regard to their religious needs," Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the daughter of a chaplain, told Axios.

By the numbers: The ratio of students to counselors in U.S. schools was 385:1 for the 2022–2023 school year, per the American School Counselor Association. The association recommends 250:1.

  • A counselor typically serves as a career guide who also deals with social/emotional learning, academic struggles, relationships, bullying and harassment.
  • Experts recommend schools have counselors, psychologists and social workers. However, the ratio of students to school psychologists was 1,119:1, more than double the recommendation.

State of play: Florida's legislature on Thursday passed a bill that would allow unlicensed chaplains to volunteer at public schools. It will become law in July if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) doesn't veto it, which is not expected.

  • The only requirement is that chaplains pass a background check and allow their name and religious affiliation to be posted on the school's website.
  • While the bill's sponsor brushed off objections, saying chaplains have been in "institutions for centuries," detractors raised concern over the distinction between chaplains being available in a school versus a prison, hospital or military post.
  • "We think that that is a violation of the Constitution and goes beyond even the rulings the Supreme Court has issued recently," Nancy Lawther, Florida PTA legislation committee chair, told Axios.

Zoom out: States that have pursued chaplains in schools argue the U.S. Supreme Court is on their side.

  • They point to a 2022 decision in support of a fired Washington football coach who would publicly pray with players after games.
  • In its ruling, the Supreme Court said those prayers are constitutional as long as students are not coerced to participate. States argue the same reasoning applies to chaplains providing counseling services.
  • The National School Chaplain Association didn't immediately to Axios' request for comment.

The big picture: There's a shortage in practically every role in the U.S. school system, from substitute teachers to bus drivers, often forcing whoever is available to perform multiple duties, from administrative tasks to actual crisis response.

  • School counseling as a profession has a pipeline problem, with education costs to meet master's degree requirements a major barrier. That's along with low pay, few pathways to enter the field and the expectation of performing several extra duties.
  • The counselor job has also become politicized, with some getting doxxed or subjected to right-wing misinformation-driven attacks, often related to the conservative angst around youth gender identity and sexual orientation.

Reality check: Texas required school boards to weigh in on allowing chaplains and how such programs would look, which some have delicately sidestepped or outright rejected.

  • In Florida, Lawther said she expects school board attorneys will be "burning the midnight oil" to set parameters around what's considered a permissible program.
  • Facing a constitutional burden, "as in Texas, the larger districts may say, 'No thanks,'" she said.

Between the lines: Those who oppose the school chaplain movement say it reflects a rise in Christian nationalism in the U.S. — even as most young people sour on religion.

  • Florida state Sen. Shev Jones (D), who voted against the state's legislation, speculated that it could be a springboard for the Legislature to expand on in the future.
  • He implored his colleagues to apply the energy and time spent on school chaplains "to push for mental health services for our children and funding more counselors in our schools."

For now, the focus remains in other areas. In 2018, Florida passed a bill requiring the state motto to be displayed in all its schools.

  • The motto: "In God We Trust."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say Florida passed a bill requiring the state motto to be displayed in all schools in 2018, not 2023.

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