As States Dole Out Billions for Opioid Relief, Educators Rarely Get a Say

By Mark Lieberman — August 04, 2023 4 min read
Woman clutching knees next to prescription bottle: opioid crisis.
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Educators won’t have much of a direct role in influencing how states will spend billions of dollars in legal settlement funds for addressing the opioid addiction crisis.

Most states have formed commissions or councils to oversee or directly control the flow of funding. But only three states—Arkansas, Illinois, and Nevada—have included a school district representative on their commission, according to an Education Week analysis of a database of state opioid council members published by Kaiser Health News.

Another three—Hawaii, Idaho, and Oklahoma—included someone from the state department of education (Hawaii’s state department of education functions as the state’s only school district). Two more—Connecticut and New Jersey—appointed a representative from a state agency for issues involving children and families. Another state, Maine, will retain a consultant from a school district to lead initiatives funded with a portion of the dollars set aside for K-12 education.

But more than two dozen states that have formed commissions didn’t include a single K-12 educator representative. Among those are opioid crisis hotspots like Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. A handful of remaining states haven’t yet formed commissions.

States have begun receiving a total of more than $50 billion in funds from legal settlements with companies like McKinsey, Purdue Pharma, and Walgreens that helped fuel the proliferation of opioids throughout the nation in recent decades. Close to 400,000 people died of opioid-related drug overdoses between 2015 and 2021, the most recent year for which federal data are available, and the deadliest year for opioid overdoses on record in the U.S.

School districts are seeing the impacts, including the massive increased costs of special education services and mental health counseling for children who were born to opioid-addicted mothers or suffered from trauma as the result of opioids in their households. Districts in many states are pursuing separate litigation of their own, arguing that drug manufacturers and marketers ought to bear responsibility for these increased costs.

Most commissions tasked with directing or advising policymakers on the flow of opioid relief funds primarily include medical professionals, social workers, and representatives of the criminal justice system, said Sara Whaley, a research associate for the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health who helped construct the Kaiser Health News database.

But those aren’t the only areas of society that have been touched by the proliferation of deadly opioids.

“What we don’t think about are the secondary and tertiary impact of substance use disorders,” Whaley said. “We don’t think about the children of people with substance use disorder, and how that impacts them in their education.”

A lawyer representing school districts in their opioid litigation previously told Education Week that schools can be the “superstar of abatement"—hubs for prevention and treatment that break the cycle of drug use and set families on paths to healing.

When schools are less directly involved in crafting responses to the opioid crisis, Whaley said, programs designed to operate within districts can be more cumbersome to administer, might aim to fill needs schools and students don’t have, or might not end up being established at all.

“If you have folks from the sheriff’s department that are, like, ‘let’s do the school-based program, here’s money,’ and then the school system has to scramble to figure out how to implement that, that’s not a good process for sustainability,” Whaley said. “The school might use that money, do a program because they have to, and then there’s no follow-up or it’s just a one-off.”

The opioid crisis runs through schools and the students they serve

States’ plans for distributing the opioid money, and their approach to figuring out how to do so, vary widely.

Maine’s council overseeing spending for 50 percent of the state’s settlement allocation includes 15 members: public health professionals, a state lawmaker, a sheriff, a deputy police chief, and a county administrator.

While the council doesn’t include an educator, education isn’t completely absent from the group’s priorities. The state’s strategic plan for addressing opioid addiction and its effects includes provisions to expand behavioral health support and social-emotional learning in schools.

And unlike in most states, Maine’s school districts secured a guarantee that 3 percent of the state’s allocation will be awarded directly to them through competitive grant programs.

Gordon Smith, Maine’s director of opioid response, said the state’s opioid council is well-positioned to make good use of the funds. But he acknowledges that it will be impossible to address every priority to the fullest extent.

“The harms that have been done are so enormous and the needs are so great that this is a very modest amount of money to address them,” Smith said.

Allocating even a modest amount of money takes considerable time, too. The council has spent several early meetings crafting policies for transparency and conflicts of interest since many of its members work directly with organizations likely to apply for grant funding, Smith said.

Smith said the state’s commission plans to rely on a school district liaison to direct that portion of the funding.

Districts in most states have no such guarantee of funds from the settlement.

All the while, the urgency of the issue can’t be ignored. Seven children in Maine accessed their parents’ supply of fentanyl last year, and one of them died, Smith said. Schools must be part of the solution, he said.

“This problem doesn’t really get much better anywhere until we have fewer individuals start down that path,” Smith said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2023 edition of Education Week as As States Dole Out Billions for Opioid Relief, Educators Rarely Get a Say


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