Every Tuesday for the past 15 years, Debra Howe and her former co-workers at Hillcrest Elementary in Lake Stevens have met for a “fun friend day” over a meal and conversation.
Howe retired from the school last September but, like her friends, had spent more than two decades working there as a paraeducator — a position more widely known as classroom aide or instructional assistant. The hot topic at this week’s gathering? The revelation, in a recent Education Lab and Seattle Times story, that paraeducators in Washington take home an average salary of about $42,000.
“It was jaw-dropping,” Howe recalled of her reaction when she read the figure. “Where in the world would you get that kind of money? Are you kidding me?”
Echoing Howe, many paraeducators — and in some cases, their spouses — reached out to Education Lab to register similar disbelief with the estimate that paraeducators earn about half the salary of the average teacher in the Evergreen State.
Rather, they reported making just about $21,000 a year — roughly a quarter of the average teacher salary.
“We’d be ecstatic if we could make that kind of money,” Howe said of $42,000. “That’s basically two of us together.”
Where did this mismatch come from? After all, we relied on state data for the salary numbers. In short, most paraeducators work part-time; the $42,000 is what the average paraeducator would make — if the person worked full-time.
Let’s take a step back: In the piece about paraeducators, Education Lab cited salary figures from the personnel summary reports that every school district in Washington submits to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. But to determine the average salary for paraeducators, the state assumes they work eight-hour shifts, five days a week over an entire year.
In reality, the average individual paraeducator in Washington works a little over half that schedule, and many are only employed during the 180-day school year.
The state superintendent’s office estimated that if it accounted for the total number of individuals working as paraeducators — about 25,500 — the average base salary would be about $21,700, much lower than $42,000.
Similarly, the Public School Employees of Washington, a statewide union that represents paraeducators, estimated their average salary on a per-individual basis at about $21,900.
“That’s not much of an income,” said Judie Tice.
This fall, she’ll clock her 41st year working as a paraeducator at Sylvester Middle School in Burien. The most hours Tice can work in that position is six hours a day, though she often arrives to school early and leaves late — without compensation for that time. And still, after all that time at the same school, she only took home about $21,900 last year.
“I would almost consider moving if I knew where paraeducators earn $42,000 a year,” Tice said.
At Tukwila Elementary, Annie Wade also works a six-hour day. She splits part of that time between playground and lunchroom duty, but mostly works with small groups of students struggling with math.
After a three-day strike last year, Wade and other paraeducators in Tukwila secured a 3% raise, bringing her annual salary to about $30,000.
“I’ve been at this for 21 years,” Wade said, “and I’m at the top of my pay scale for my level of service. I’m still not even making $31,000.”
Regardless, she emphasized her love for the job — even as she considers retiring after this next school year.
“We’re not just doing playground or lunchroom duty. We’re not doing bulletin boards or correcting papers,” Wade said. “We’re right there, side by side or across the tables from kids, and we are instructing. We are teaching.”