Recruitment & Retention

School Support Staffers Don’t Make a Living Wage. Here’s a Comparison by State

By Madeline Will — May 03, 2022 2 min read
Food service assistant Brenda Bartee, rear, gives students breakfast, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, during the first day of school at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla.
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There’s no state in the country where an education support professional—such as a paraprofessional or a school cafeteria worker—earns enough, on average, to support themself and one child while living in the state’s most affordable metropolitan area, a new analysis finds.

In addition to this year’s teacher salary rankings, the National Education Association released data for how much school support staff make in each state. The nation’s largest teachers’ union, which represents about a half-million education support professionals, analyzed federal data to provide a picture of all support staff working in public schools. There are nearly 2.2 million education support professionals working in K-12 public schools, compared to about 3.2 million classroom teachers.

Education support professionals are known as the backbone of schools for their work supporting classroom learning and maintaining the functionality of school operations. Many of them work directly with students, particularly those who have disabilities. Yet many of these workers are not making a living wage, this analysis found.

According to the NEA’s data, the largest share of K-12 education support professionals—39 percent—are paraprofessionals, followed by clerical workers (16 percent), custodial workers (almost 16 percent), food and service staff (11.5 percent), and transportation workers (9 percent). Technical staff (such as computer operators or public relations specialists), skilled trade workers (such as electricians or HVAC specialists), health and student services workers, and school security make up smaller shares of the workforce.

Almost 80 percent of K-12 education support professionals work full time, defined by the NEA as 30 or more hours per week. (About half of those employees work 40 or more hours.)

The average full-time K-12 support professional earned $32,837 in the 2020-21 school year. Delaware had the highest salary for full-time K-12 support staff ($44,738), while Idaho had the lowest ($25,830).

More than two-thirds of K-12 support staff don’t have any higher education degree, and about 12 percent have an associate degree. These school-based workers—who are, on average, more racially diverse than the teacher workforce—are increasingly being viewed as a potential pool of future teachers. Many states and districts have started pipeline programs for paraprofessionals and other staffers to earn a college degree and become a classroom teacher while still working in schools.

Yet the NEA warned that like teacher salaries, the salaries of education support professionals have not kept up with inflation—and these “persistent pay gaps” will make it difficult for schools to attract and retain these workers.

The NEA used the Economic Policy Institute’s family budget calculator to determine whether support staff make a living wage and found that on average, these employees would not be able to live in a metropolitan area and support themselves and one child without government assistance or another adult’s income.

In at least four states—Vermont, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and Oregon—and the District of Columbia the gap between the average salary and this measure of a living wage is more than $25,000.

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