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EDITORIAL: Social worker expansion in schools offers promise

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Debate at the Nebraska State Capitol often pivots around - or centers on - the at-times differing needs of the state’s rural and urban residents.

A bill before senators this year aims to ensure all Nebraska students have increased access to social workers, regardless of their location. The legislation, LB998 introduced by Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz, would create the Collaborative School Behavioral and Mental Health Program. That would ensure each of the state’s 17 educational service units outside Lincoln and Omaha have a social worker on staff for three years.

By targeting the ESUs, centralized offices that provide services to districts by pooling resources, this measure would take a first step by working through a system that includes every Class 3 public school district in Nebraska.

Concerns about cost and a loss of local control are misguided, as the proposal creates what would essentially be a three-year trial program.

The bill isn’t an added expense for the state or an unfunded mandate, as it requests no state appropriation and plans to rely on grants. No money would be disbursed until the fund for the program reached $3.6 million, at which point the ESU Coordinating Council would hire a program coordinator and social worker for each ESU.

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After three years, ESUs and individual districts would then have flexibility to continue employing a social worker through whatever means they deem fit. Those that opt out or determine they’re unable to afford it will no longer participate.

That’s it. Nowhere is the state interfering in the long-term operations of Nebraska schools, wasting money or perpetuating the government overreach detractors have insinuated.

Instead, the council created by this legislation merely would serve as a vehicle to improve access to social workers, who would be the point people for referring students to relevant resources and provide training to school staffers.

As populations shrink, availability of mental and behavioral health providers tends to follow, with such outlets few and far between in rural communities. But, since every student and school belongs to an ESU, Walz’s bill would help the 17 ESUs - headquartered in towns such as Wakefield, Trenton, Ainsworth and Milford - would be able offer some of the same programs available in Lincoln and Omaha.

A district’s enrollment shouldn’t be the sole determinant in whether students get the help they need. This proposal offers a way to level the playing field without charging taxpayers a dime before it gets off the ground.

For a state as sprawling as Nebraska, the bipartisan list of 11 co-sponsors stretches literally from border to border. Expanding the reach of social workers would be a sound policy upgrade, helping offer new resources to all students in this state.

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