When children repeatedly act out, become withdrawn or exhibit other odd behaviors at school, too often their teachers aren't sure what to do. In schools that have partnerships with mental-health clinics, they at least have a place to turn for help.

Today only a limited number of Minnesota schools have access to that kind of assistance. That's why Gov. Mark Dayton and several lawmakers wisely propose expanding school-based mental-health services for state students.

Identifying and treating more children can help improve the school environment, reduce disruptions and suspensions, and increase academic achievement.

Dayton's proposed budget and several recently introduced bills would expand a program that was adopted on a bipartisan basis in 2007. With then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty's support, lawmakers provided $4.7 million in annual state funding to pay for mental-health care in schools and to help teachers develop plans for troubled students.

Under the program, nonprofit, community-based mental-health providers apply for state grants to work with specific schools. Then they collaborate with those schools to serve students and families. Clinicians go to the schools and perform services there, making it more convenient for students and their families.

Between 2008 and 2011, the current grants program served 13,467 students in 50 Minnesota counties. That covered only about 17 percent of the state's nearly 2,000 public schools. About half of those students needed, but had never received, mental-health services before.

During its pilot years, the partnerships have demonstrated their value and have even helped reduce spending in areas such as special education. According to data collected by the Minnesota National Alliance on Mental Illness, about a third of the most severely mentally ill kids showed significant improvement after four months of treatment.

To reach more students, Dayton and legislators from both the House and Senate propose increasing the annual amount of funding by 50 percent next year and doubling it after that.

In evaluating the return on investment, legislators should consider the multiple benefits and potential savings of providing mental-health care to students.

Where clinical help is available, school administrators report fewer classroom disruptions and suspensions. Among children who receive treatment, truancy rates drop, and graduation, attendance and academic performance rates go up.

From a school-safety standpoint, both depression and overly aggressive behaviors can be identified earlier to help address problems with bullying and reduce youth violence.

President Obama has made school mental-health services a cornerstone of his recent school-safety and gun-control plans. And in January, U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota introduced a bill that would increase student access to mental care by providing as much as $1 million in grant funds to schools that have partnerships with local clinics.

"Every child in Minnesota affected by mental illness deserves this chance," Franken told reporters last month.

Clearly, it's smart policy to identify and treat psychological issues in children as early as possible. Getting them the help they need benefits not only individual students and families, but the learning environment for all students.


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).