Fifth grade teacher Jessica Gomez, inside her classroom at Maple Intermediate School in Huntington Station, New York on August 24, 2022, as she set up her classroom in preparation for starting the school year. (Photo: James Carbone/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

End 'Poverty Wages' in Schools

Education support professionals are essential to our schools. It's time they are respected and paid accordingly.

The Great Resignation continues to punish schools. It has become increasingly difficult to fill the all important position of the Education Support Professional (ESP). For a moment, pause in awe of the number of unheralded women who have shaped countless lives in education as ESPs:

Jane's tender hands and heart had grown weary. She had cared for children for twenty years. As the wise woman of the school, parents, and teachers alike sought her out for advice, and her special talent of listening. They all left feeling understood. And while her feet and back ached from the long days of tying shoes and telling stories to her spry charges, she still loved every minute of it. She got up in the morning to be part of the world of children and to feel the rhythm of school. Yet, after all those pre-dawn mornings of scraping ice and snow off her car, she only earned just above minimum wage.

Many ESPs in America, like my dear friend Jane, have been caught between serving the children and communities they love and making ends meet. It has become common for ESPs to take on second and third jobs, or to rely on a supportive spouse due to their low wages at school. As the cost of living surges, classrooms are losing more and more of these valuable people. And the loss of their contributions to our communities will continue, unless a living wage is realized.

Expanding union membership for all those who help children thrive can help to end the pay penalty, which disproportionately harms women, and especially women of color.

ESPs are sometimes referred to as "paraprofessionals" or "teacher's aides" or even "child care workers." The commonly used job title of this important division of educators, "paraprofessional," denotes the quasi-recognition of the services these nurturing people provide. They provide critical small group and one-on-one support to students with a variety of social, intellectual, emotional and behavioral needs. To a large extent, these professional educators have historically been women and are often significantly underpaid.

The statistical profile of ESPs, according to the NEA, tells us that the average ESP has been in the profession for 13 years, that 81 percent of ESPs are women, and 40 percent work in preschool, kindergarten or elementary schools. Over 70 percent spend their "off the clock" time continuing to give back to their schools and neighborhoods through volunteering after school and on weekends.

The spirit of volunteerism among ESPs should be honored, but there needs to be recognition and remuneration for ESPs to be financially viable into the future. Modest salary gains for ESPs have been erased by the near double digit inflation. Paired with the current competitive job market, there is a pronounced incentive to leave schools for a less demanding job with higher pay. It is unconscionable that as one ESP interviewed in an Appalachian State research study said, after taxes..."you make below poverty level." The many professionals who stay in the field do so out of a true passion for the "magic of learning" and the desire to help each student find their own talents and sense of self. Still, the costs of education should not be downshifted to support professionals, and the economic reality of the job must be made sustainable for both the sake of the employees and the students.

Given the current nationwide teacher shortage, attention is shifting toward how being an ESP can be the gateway to teaching. The potential for ESPs to continue their professional development and pursue teaching should be an option available to each individual and there should be a system of support to illuminate a clear career ladder, and more importantly, fair and adequate financial support for those wishing to stay in the roles that they're currently working.

Failure to adequately pay ESPs today is a determinant to recruiting and retaining a diverse and competent cohort of teachers for tomorrow's teachers. As a 2021 working paper from Brown's Annenberg Center stated, ESPs represent an experienced, "racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse" candidate pool of future teachers. This statement echoes what research from the NEA has reported about the benefit of the lived experiences of ESPs and the natural fit of moving from that role to that of a teacher. The current teacher shortage is projected to worsen over the coming decade. And the ongoing need to recruit and support staff and faculty who reflect the diversity of the schools and communities they serve spans the nation. Acknowledging this creates an opportunity for districts and departments of education to support all school personnel through professional development and with equitable compensation.

Forming a consistent and predictable learning environment requires school districts to develop a strategy that is not over-reliant on volunteers to fulfill the duties of trained ESPs. While parent volunteers in schools are welcome and a way of further integrating community voices into the school, students need to be surrounded by a consistent group of supportive adults. Professional staff members can ease students into developmentally appropriate independence. High turnover results in a less stable learning environment and a decrease in child readiness for learning. Parents and local volunteers can be recruited and trained as ESPs, which in turn can stabilize the workforce needed to serve children each and every day.

Unfortunately, as labor shortages persist, districts have struggled to fill ESP positions. The high amount of vacancies is evidence that the patchwork policy approach is not working and that a more comprehensive, coordinated strategy is needed to attract people to these important roles. ESSER funds (Federal COVID relief money) should be used to address ESP economic insecurity in the short term by providing direct wage increases. Such a proposal was offered publicly by Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

The collective voices of ESPs need to be heard in current educational policy decisions and union participation is the most tried and tested method of attaining concrete wins for all professionals in education. Expanding union membership for all those who help children thrive can help to end the pay penalty, which disproportionately harms women, and especially women of color. ESPs deserve a seat at the table, which is something that teachers have long fought to help them attain. Ending poverty wages for ESPs cannot wait and must be a top priority for districts from Maine to Oregon. We can achieve great things when we are side by side in the classroom and at the negotiations table!

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