Walk through any school in Oklahoma, and you will likely find the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” hanging over a teacher’s desk or printed on a principal’s mug. Decades of research about the importance of school climate confirm this saying. Education support staff, like bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, mechanics, plumbers, security guards, teacher aides, paraprofessionals, secretaries, and other non-certified personnel, are a critical component of schools as villages.
This is why it was particularly worrisome that Governor Stitt’s budget proposal for education spending this session only included increased funding for a $1,200 teacher pay raise and a teacher recruitment bonus. Teachers do need better pay, but a small raise will do little to address the conditions teachers have endured over the past decade. Teachers are leaving Oklahoma schools because their pay is low, but also because the pressure to produce results without sufficient human resources — especially support staff — has become untenable. In short, budget cuts have depleted the school village, and we need funding to restore it.
Oklahoma schools don’t have enough support staff to meet needs, and their salaries are far too low averaging just $21,583 a year. While HB 1010xx gave support professionals a $1,250 pay raise, it was well short of the $5,000 they asked for. This session, education support professionals must be a bigger part of our conversations about how to better serve Oklahoma’s schools. A good first step is to fund an adequate pay increase. Adding sufficient funding to the state aid formula would also allow schools to restore support staff cuts, which can help foster school climates where students feel safe, supported, and prepared to learn.
This 2018-2019 school year has almost 54,000 more students — more than double the total undergraduate enrollment of the University of Oklahoma — than a decade earlier, but 391 fewer support employees.
Support staff are crucial to school climate
Support professionals not only ensure the safety and well-being of students, but they are also integral to creating a positive school climate. School climate — the quality and character of school life — has enormous impact on student achievement. Education support professionals, along with administrators and teachers, make up the adults in schools, and those with thriving school climates integrate all administrators, teachers, and support professionals to create environments where students feel a strong sense of belonging. Schools with high measures of positive relationships tend to have students who are more engaged, have fewer disciplinary issues, have higher graduation rates, and produce higher academic outcomes.
School support staff have a unique and important relationship with the children in their schools. Approximately 3 in 4 education support professionals live, vote, and worship in the districts where they work. Support staff often bring knowledge and relationships from the community into the school, which can help build vital relationships for students who might have difficulty connecting with educators in more formal settings.
Like teachers, many support professionals pursue careers in schools because they love kids and want to make a difference in their lives. The positive interactions students have with their bus drivers or secretaries lie at the center of building trusting relationships between students and educators, which is perhaps the most critical ingredient to creating positive school climates. However, when support positions are overburdened and understaffed, it is difficult to give students the attention they need or provide professional development to foster consistent approaches across the building.
Total number of school support staff is down across the state
Over the past decade, the number of support staff in schools has not kept up with student enrollment. This 2018-2019 school year has almost 54,000 more students — more than double the total undergraduate enrollment of the University of Oklahoma — than a decade earlier, but 391 fewer support employees. With more students to serve, schools have fewer support professionals to get students safely to school, ensure they are well-fed, keep buildings clean, and provide needed classroom assistance.
Apart from special education support staff, which can be funded through federal dollars, districts use general funds received through the state aid formula to hire support professionals. In the face of insufficient state aid funding, districts often have to cut multiple support positions in order to hold on to a teacher. The declining number of support staff across the state likely reflect these kinds of bare-bones staffing dilemmas.
Poverty-level wages and support staff turnover challenges school climate
Administrators at one school district explained that staff turnover is a problem in many of their schools. Low wages can force staff to look for jobs outside public education or find positions that more easily accommodate working two jobs. Just as high teacher turnover negatively impacts student achievement, high support staff turnover challenges a school’s ability to create sustained collaboration with staff that is necessary for vibrant school climates. To create climates where students feel a strong sense of trust and belonging, staff must establish shared systems of communication, interaction, and response to student needs. Fostering a positive learning environment takes time and consistency. High staff turnover challenges a school’s capacity to establish these norms.
Despite their importance to student success, support staff earn poverty-level wages. Last year, support staff received a $1,250 pay increase, which nudged the average support staff salary to $21,583 — just barely over the federal poverty line for a single parent with two children. Low salaries mean that many live paycheck to paycheck, and Ed McIntosh, President of American Federation of Teachers Tulsa, says that the vast majority of support employees in his organization take on second jobs. Many support professionals also rely on safety net programs like Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps) to supplement their low wages.
Budget cuts also mean many support employees are doing more work for the same low pay. Carmon Williams, an elementary school secretary in Oklahoma City who supports herself and four children on a $19,000 a year salary, also fills in (unpaid) as the school nurse, handing out medication during the four days a week her school does not have a dedicated nurse. She often stands in for other staff when the school is short-handed.
Schools can hire more staff and increase pay with additional state funding
Education support professionals are central to the success of every school and child, but they are too often overlooked by policymakers. Improving Oklahoma’s schools means increasing education support professional pay and funding state aid so that schools can hire enough staff. This session lawmakers have the capacity to fulfill these goals, and Oklahomans should remind them that this is a top priority for our schools.
[Image Source: U.S. Department of Education / Flickr]