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Washington schools nearing paraeducator ‘labor crisis.’ What lawmakers, Inslee are proposing

By Eric Rosane, Tri-City Herald
Published: January 27, 2024, 6:03am

KENNEWICK — If there was a vehicle that embodies the grit and grind of Cindy Bampton’s job, it’d have to be her trusty 21-year-old Dodge Grand Caravan.

It’s the quintessential “mom van” and it “gets the job done,” Bampton says with a smile.

“It conquers the snow, which I love. And I have a fabulous mechanic that just keeps it going for me because his wife is para and she drives the same car. And he goes, ‘I know you can’t afford a car payment. We’ll keep it going,’” she said.

Bampton hopes to buy a new van some day, but can’t on the $21.80 hourly wage she makes as a kindergarten paraeducator at Desert Sky Elementary in the Richland School District.

Paraeducators — or paraprofessionals, as they’re sometimes called — are classified public school employees who work in classrooms, alongside teachers, to provide direct instructional support to students.

Roughly 1-in-5 school district employees in Washington state are paraeducators, for a total of nearly 38,000.

In the Tri-Cities, more than 1,300 paras to help support public instruction.

While they’re not certificated like teachers, paraeducators are often seen as the backbone of classrooms.

Public school teachers must hold degrees and a teaching certification to be hired in Washington. At a minimum, paraeducators must have a high school diploma and either have an associate’s degree, some college credits, an apprenticeship experience or have completed a paraeducator assessment.

They do a little bit of everything in their support role, including facilitating one-on-one and small-group tutoring, mentoring students, helping life skills students, supporting teachers in instructing students, communicating with families, and are outside supervising students on lunch breaks and recesses and at crosswalks.

But paras are also among the lowest-paid employees in a school building, with some districts paying them only a few bucks above the state’s minimum wage. Many say they are forced to work other jobs to get by financially.

While many paras say they feel passionate about the work they do, they also report feeling expendable, burnt out and that their work goes mostly unnoticed. They also put their bodies on the line when responding to student outbursts, bullying and fights.

“I’ve been spit on. I’ve been shoved down. I’ve been kicked,” Bampton said.

Lawmakers in Olympia are considering several proposals in the 2024 legislative session to raise paraeducators pay.

Chris Reykdal, Washington’s superintendent of public instruction, has proposed adding $700 million through 2027 in the state’s supplemental budget to increase hourly wages another $7 to $8.26, depending on the region. That means the minimum wage would start at $29 an hour.

Reykdal’s request was included in a piece of legislation — Senate Bill 6082 — that had a hearing this week in the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education committee. If the bill doesn’t pass, some of the raises could still be included in budgetary negotiations later this session.

Earlier this week, Gov. Jay Inslee spoke to some paraeducators in Tumwater, and proposed the state spend $64 million in pay raises directly for paraeducators, equivalent to a $3 hourly raise.

“Paraeducators touch so many lives,” he later said in a statement posted to X/Twitter. “They elevate the happiness and development of the kids who rely on them. And they could use a raise, so I’ve proposed a budget for this legislative session that includes one.”

Several paraeducators and former students signed on Wednesday to testify in support of SB 6082, which had a public hearing in the Early Learning and K-12 Education committee.

Reykdal said half of Washington’s paraprofessional positions have seen turnover in the last five years. He characterized the issue as a “labor crisis” and said the current wages are “not sustainable” for the state’s public schools.

“If we don’t invest in paraeducators with a wage structure today, virtually anything in the service economy pays better because they can get more than 1,200 hours,” he said.

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Khalid Sirad, a high school graduate with special needs students, testified in support of the bill and said the one-on-one instruction he received was critical to his success. Para instructors helped him understand core concepts in easier terms without interrupting class instruction.

Leonardo Salas Ramos, another supporter of the bill, said paraeducators in his school taught him to be a “better man.”

“They do things that nobody else would do for us people with disabilities,” he said.

Bampton has worked as a paraeducator in Richland in Southeast Washington for about 16 years.

She started as a volunteer at her children’s school and soon after accepted a job as a paraeducator.

While her children are now adults, Bampton has stayed on at the school district for the love of the work and because she’s dedicated to the kids. She’s often the first and last to see students as they arrive and leave school.

“We give everything we have to being loving and caring and thinking outside the box for these kids, some of whom have social-emotional issues, learning disabilities, physical disabilities. I don’t think any single one of us should have to work a second job,” Bampton said.

About one-third of paraprofessionals nationwide report having to take on a second or third job, according to a survey from Education Week. And a sizeable number also say they’re on government assistance.

“We shouldn’t have to get off work at 3:45, run home to eat and let the dog out, and then run to our next job, get home at 10:30 at night and do it all over the next day. It’s exhausting,” Bampton said.

Her husband works in manufacturing. While his income helps pay for much of the family’s expenses, she’s picked up a part-time retail job to pay for car repairs and to help keep their savings account healthy.

“My biggest fear is something’s going to happen to him. Our mortgage is less than a 1-bedroom apartment, but still, to take on that payment plus the maintenance? And if I were to have some medical issues? There’s just that constant fear of not being able to survive,” Bampton said.

A substantial pay raise from the state would ease the financial stress and burden she and many of her colleagues feel on the day-to-day basis, and would help buoy them as the cost-of-living rises. Bampton says the 3 percent raise her union won this school year is among the largest she’s received in 10 years.

On Tuesday, Kristin Sperling, who works with special education students at Peter Schmidt Elementary School in the Tumwater School District, was among those who spoke with the governor.

“My challenges are really just being able to reach kids and meet their needs when a lot of our staff are being asked to do more and more with less resources all the time,” she said.

In her role, Sperling said instruction often goes beyond the textbooks. She’s also teaching students social-emotional intelligence, social skills and good citizenry.

Sperling comes from a military family, her husband works in field artillery at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. She says they feel comfortable with his Army pay and her $27 hourly pay as a para.

But taxes and the cost of living continue to rise, and Sperling said that’s caused some anxiety. Plus, she’s pursuing her master’s degree to become a school counselor.

“I have been worried that if my pay stagnates, I may not be able to help my husband maintain this household, because we just bought a house,” she said.

As a union rep, Sperling says she’s also heard from several other paras who are single, living on their own and sometimes only have $60 left to their name after monthly expenses.

“It’s catastrophic for a lot of people, frankly,” she said.