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Advocacy/Legislation: Legislative: History-PENDING
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The Connection of Federal Legislation to the Practice of School Social Work


SSWAA’s national presence in Washington D.C. has grown significantly since its inception. In 1994 SSWAA’s presence consisted of a small group of school social workers who made contacts with agencies and organizations and visited a handful of elected officials on Capitol Hill-to provide information about school social work. This past March the majority of SSWAA’s 2003 conference participants descended upon “the Hill” to lobby for educational issues that will improve services for the students they serve. SSWAA’s emphasis on establishing a national presence grew from the identification of an early priority in the development of SSWAA to gain influence as a credible resource to decision makers in DC. It was acknowledged by the founders of SSWAA that federal legislation has a great impact on the existence of social work in schools and the practice of school social work.

This article focuses attention on the impact of federal legislation on school social work, the diversity of our practice and our changing role. This is especially critical in light of the current and proposed legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

It is important to understand the history of the federal legislation, its impact and how districts and state interpretations of federal law have given rise to a variety of services. These interpretations are often what shapes the services we provide, creating a diversity of practice within the profession of school social work across the United States. It is this diversity that allows school social work to be responsive to the needs of the students we serve. It is also the diversity in our practice that can create confusion, conflict and an ill-defined profession. Donna Secor, School Social Worker (MI) captured my very thoughts in her recent reflections on the national conference and SSWAA as an emerging national organization.

It is probably safe to say that school social work practice does not look the same in any two given states. At the same time we are enriched by this diversity, it makes the establishment of common goals an ongoing challenge. It also creates a dilemma in terms of how to adequately and equitable provide a voice for the five Vermont school social workers vs. the 2500 in Illinois, all within the context of a small Board of Directors. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the states with numerous school social workers are often supported by a strong state association, while smaller states may lack any association at all.

This diversity in practice is inextricably tied to a long history of federal legislation which has shaped the profession of school social work.


1975 P.L.-94-142 Education for All-Handicapped Children Act
Provided special testing, remediation, counseling and
1986 P.L.-99-457 Early Intervention for Infants and Toddlers
Provided for psychological testing, parent and family
training, counseling, and transition services to preschool
1988 P.L.-100-297 The Hawkins-Stafford ESEA Act
Provided for the expanded role of school social
workers for preventative interventions for high-risk
children and youth
1990 P.L.- 101-476 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
Provided to improve the original 1975 legislation with
social work services explicitly added to the definition
of early intervention services
1994 P.L.-103-382 Improving America’s Schools Act – reauthorizing
Providing a greater role for school social workers,
among other pupil-services personnel, in helping
children succeed in school. School Social Workers
were specifically included in the act’s definition of
pupil-services personnel. Title 1 of the act,
Compensatory Education, calls for new and expanded
roles for social workers in the schools, for example,
social workers must be consulted in the development
of state plans to help disadvantaged children. Social
workers are also part of state school-support teams
that help schools develop and evaluate programs and
identify problems. An additional feature the legislation,
the Elementary School Counseling Demonstration
Act, provides grants for schools to initiate or expand
comprehensive elementary counseling programs.
Programs are required to use school social workers,
school counselors and school psychologist.
1997   Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Act
1997 Reauthorization of IDEA went beyond FAPE and LRE
to increase educational results for disabled students.
(Gibleman 2001)



As can be seen by the history of legislation, the role of the school social worker continues to evolve(Gibleman 1995). Isadora Hare (1994) wrote that role change has been affected by new and broadened legislation and the increasing emphasis on school-linked services that involve collaboration between schools and community services. The school social workers role is also affected by local community demographics of population, and economics, as well as by the school district’s mission and stated goals. School social work develops and delivers services based on all of these factors.

Donna Secor points out that…..”the scope of school social work practice has varied from little or no official role or capacity in some state’ special education programs and services to a mandated involvement in all multi-disciplinary evaluations and ongoing services provided through student IEP’s. Rule-based mandates seem to be one key to increased numbers of school social workers per state.” The number of school social worker positions and continued existence of our services in schools is dependent upon Federal, State and local funding. States receive funding from the federal government for those programs and, in turn, allocate funds to the local school districts that pay our salaries. Other local funding that support School Social Work positions is voted on by taxpayers who pass bonds and levy’s that support the local educational system.

Being responsive to local school district’s mission and goals as related to student needs is also critical to the survival of school social work positions. Consequently being responsive can mean school social workers are required to do what is necessary to meet the needs of the school district, which can mean our services look different one district to another, one state to another. One of the ways to measure our effectiveness is connecting school social work services to student learning standards which can be used to show the value of school social work services both locally, and on the state and federal levels.

SSWAA’s continued emphasis on a national presence in Washington DC, not only with a Government Relations staff, but also through direct membership participation, is critical to our profession’s survival. As more SSWAA members become active at the federal level, they will also gain the skills needed to influence the interpretation of federal legislation at the state and local levels. As SSWAA members become more skilled and influential in affecting policy and decision making, we gain the ability to shape our profession rather than have others impose their “definitions” of school social work on us. Mears (1994) declared that, “regardless of their job description, social workers in this area must become more involved in leadership and policy-making to clearly define the profession’s role in the educational system.”

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