The national spotlight on the strikes and walkouts this spring. But in the shadows was another group that’s just as critical for keeping schools running: support staff.
Often overlooked in the broader public discourse, these workers, including instructional aides and paraprofessionals, sometimes had more at stake in the walkouts than full-time teachers. When schools were closed, many didn’t get paid.
“Anytime we hear about how bad conditions are for teachers in these states, they’re worse for support staff,” said Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. “They’re really struggling. There’s a lot of school support staff who are eligible for Medicaid, who are eligible for food stamps, who are working multiple other jobs in addition to their school job to make ends meet.”
The goals of much of the teacher activism this spring——are shared by support employees, especially paraprofessional educators. Those workers, who do not all have college degrees, are working directly with students, side-by-side with the teachers. They give individual attention to students, many of whom have special needs. In states with ballooning class sizes and fewer resources, the paraeducators help keep the classroom running smoothly.
“The joke going around is we’re a little bit crazy, because we do this job for nothing,” said Rachel McCartney, a teacher’s assistant in a high school special education class in Oklahoma. She helps students with physical disabilities do their schoolwork, use the bathroom, and eat lunch. An average paycheck for two weeks of work, she said, is about $550 after taxes.
During the nine-day statewide walkout, McCartney took unpaid time off to head to the state Capitol and fight for more education funding. She joined thousands of other support staff in Oklahoma, Arizona, and West Virginia—many of whom were sacrificing their paychecks to stand up for their profession. Still others stayed on the sidelines during the walkouts, working in empty school buildings while they waited to hear whether they would receive a pay raise.
The average annual wage for full-time teachers’ assistants is $27,950. But in the states with large-scale walkouts this spring, teachers’ assistants make less than the national average.
West Virginia: $24,640
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017
In West Virginia, educators ultimately secured a 5 percent across-the-board pay raise for teachers, school service personnel, and other state employees. In Oklahoma, teachers received an average $6,100 pay raise, while school support personnel got $1,250 more per year.
In Arizona, teachers received a 20 percent pay raise over three years. But instead of designating money for pay increases for other staff members,—$100 million next school year—to school districts. Districts have the flexibility to use the money to update curriculum, modernize classroom technology, or increase support staff salaries.
That resolution frustrated many paraeducators in Arizona, including Allison Evans, who was working as an instructional assistant in Mesa, making $11.18 an hour.
Evans said she felt like support staff lost a week’s worth of wages for what turned out to be no guarantee of a sizeable raise.
“I know that kids need better textbooks. I know that roofs have holes in them and need to be repaired,” she said.
And while those should be priorities, “you have to pay your staff, too,” she said. “There’s no telling how much money is going to be left over, and I know the employees are going to be the end of the list.”
For teachers, school closures were generally treated as a sort of snow day, Kolins Givan said: They may have to make up a few days at the end of the school year, but their salaries weren’t affected.
But for many paraeducators, the impacts were less cut and dried. While every district handled the walkout differently and some tried to continue to pay their support personnel, it wasn’t always feasible. And it became harder as the walkouts stretched on.
Loretta Martin, an English-language development technician in the Flowing Wells school district outside of Tucson, Ariz., said she ultimately lost one day’s worth of wages during the strike. Her district let support staff work during the first couple days of the walkout. The district closed entirely the second week, but officials are letting employees make up two days at the end of the school year.
The lost income was still a bit of a financial hit, Martin said, but she was willing to make the sacrifice. Her husband is a retired teacher, and she wants more funding for the students she works with.
“The momentum of this movement seems to be strong, and I want to do whatever I can for it,” she said. “It was worth it for me.”
Evans of Arizona, who had hoped to become a special education teacher, also supported the movement’s goals. But losing a week’s worth of income was difficult. She had to pick up extra hours at her part-time job as a respite caregiver. She was counting on being able to make up the hours from the strike at the end of the school year, but district officials eventually decided to alter school hours instead of adding additional days to the calendar.
“I was OK with putting a pause on my paycheck. ... I was willing to hold out as long as I could, as long as I knew I wouldn’t be losing pay [in the long-term],” Evans said.
She has since quit her job as an instructional aide and is no longer sure she wants to become a teacher. Now, she’s focusing on her job as a caregiver, which pays $14 an hour—nearly $3 an hour more than she made at school.
Living ‘Paycheck to Paycheck’
For district officials, whether to continue paying support staff was one of the most pressing questions during the work stoppages.
In Oklahoma, Tulsa school district officials,, were able to keep support staff employed for the first week of the nine-day walkout. The second week, however, the money ran out.
“The first week was really critical for us, because we knew that support staff members had just come off spring break and a couple of other unpaid holidays,” said Devin Fletcher, the district’s chief talent and learning officer. “It was really important that we tried to bridge a gap, because we knew that many of our employees are living paycheck to paycheck.”
The district could not use federal funds to pay employees during the walkout due to restrictions, Fletcher said—so officials had to tap into other funding streams, including donations from community organizations.
During the first week, many support personnel, like janitors and bus drivers, were doing maintenance work that’s traditionally done over the summer, he said. Paraeducators were sent to community centers and churches that opened as makeshift child-care facilities.
“We deployed our people to where our students were to ensure we were creating holistic care while they were there,” Fletcher said.
The second week of the walkout, Fletcher said some community centers hired teachers’ aides to keep working there.
Local communities found other ways as well to chip in and help hourly staff during the walkouts. Several schools in Oklahoma and Arizona held canned food drives or collected donations for support staff.
At Arcadia High School in Phoenix, officials couldn’t pay the school’s 22 classified staff members, who include paraprofessionals, instructional aides, and cafeteria workers, during the six days of the strike.
The day before schools closed, teachers took up a collection for the classified staff to help tide them over. “It was a gesture [that said], ‘We’re about to go on a walkout, you’re not going to get paid because of our actions. Please know we’re thinking of you,’” Principal Todd Stevens said.
After the walkout concluded, the school partnered with a local brewery to hold a benefit concert, with proceeds going to the classified staff. And the parent-teacher organization started an online crowdfunding campaign, raising over $4,000 to give to these school workers.
“It was so nice to be able to support those people,” Stevens said. “Certainly in Arizona, some of the education funds will end up in the hands of those classified staff, but in the short-term, they were the most negatively affected.”
Brooke Barnett, the principal’s secretary at Jackson Elementary School in Norman, Okla., said her school district paid support staff during the walkout and did not require them to come into work. Instead, the entire staff is making up the time they missed by working longer days and staying on into June.
“That was a real blessing. It would have been absolutely a financial hardship [to not be paid for two weeks],” Barnett said.
She was able to go down to the state Capitol almost every day of the walkout, bringing her children with her. She wanted to raise awareness of the low pay and tough working conditions that both teachers and support staff endure, she said.
“I appreciate the fact that throughout the entire conversation, support staff was always included,” Barnett said. “We know how important and valuable the teachers are ... and they value the support staff as well.”
Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2018 edition of Education Week as During Strikes, Stakes High for Teachers’ Aides