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Paraeducators rally for fair wages

Bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers stood outside of the capitol with signs that read: “Living wages for ESP’S!” and “I’m a paraprofessional, my heart is full, but my wallet is empty.”

Education Support Professionals (ESPs) mainly in the classroom with kids, supporting teachers.

Two bills that would have increased wages and distributed paraeducators throughout school districts have already died in this year’s legislative session. Now, paraeducators are looking to the budget for help.

The Senate’s budget allocated over $242 million in new spending for K-12 schools, including funding for student meals, special education, and staffing needs, like paraeducators. The House budget, as well as the governor’s budget don’t mention paraeducators.

“We must do better as a state,” April Berg, D-Mill Creek, said at the rally on Monday, stating that the average yearly income for ESPs in Washington is only $30,000. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction assumes that the average annual length of a

paraeducator contract is 1,274 hours, 7 hours per day, for 182 days.

The OSPI recommended that by 2025, paraeducators receive a $7 hourly wage increase, which would bring their average hourly wage to $28 an hour. Seattle’s recognized average living wage is $34 an hour.

“For the first seven years of my career, I was a single mom of three kids,” Kari Madden, paraeducator, said. “I had to work two and three jobs and get financial help from my mom just to make ends meet. My own children suffered, and I was exhausted.”

Certified teachers showed up to support their coworkers, emphasizing that this movement is long overdue.

“As a certificated person, I couldn't do my job without the help of the paraprofessionals,” Terri Winkler, a fifth-grade teacher at Toppenish, said. “I can't always reach all 23 students in my classroom. So, when I have kids reading below grade level, it’s my paraprofessionals that are in there helping me work with those kids to try to get them caught up.”

Melissa Walker, another paraeducator, joked as it began pouring rain: “If it means standing in the rain, we stand in the rain,” referring to rainy day recess duties.

Winkler recalls during COVID-19 her school's ESPs delivered food to students.

“I think if COVID taught us anything, it taught us how important our paraprofessionals are,” Winkler said. “They feed our students, and they care for our students.”

“We are educators, and I don't think that we get the respect that we deserve because I think it's a stigma,” Walker said.

Budget negotiations will continue for the rest of the session, and even though this is the only hope left, leaders of this movement feel momentum.

Pamella Johnson, an academic and behavioral interventionist at Rochester High School in Washington, and 2023 National Education Association’s ESP of the year, spoke to the need for livable wages.

“It’s long overdue,” Johnson said. “I’ve been on this for the past 12 years and I think now there's elevation for us, and it's gonna come to fruition.”

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