Educators are not OK. And while this may not be breaking news, it has reached a level where our communities can no longer ignore it and we need to do something. Staffing-related school closures are impacting families and educators are leaving the profession, frustrated and burned out. All of this falls on students, who will not get the quality education they deserve. This is all avoidable.
COVID-19 has put our public education system under a microscope, and while COVID-related challenges are new, the systems that create those challenges are not. Our students have long gone without the mental and physical health supports they need, but now the needs are exacerbated by the trauma of a pandemic. Our students have long lacked adequate access to school nurses, but now those nurses are taking on COVID-related duties along with their usual work, spreading them even thinner.
The substitute and paraeducator shortage is also not new. Substitutes are expected to have a bachelor’s degree, the pay is low and most do not receive benefits. Yet, they’re essential to our students having what they need to learn, whether that’s one-on-one support, transportation, nutrition or other services. It should be no surprise that recruiting substitutes and paraeducators is hard, and getting more challenging in our tight labor market.
The sub and paraeducator shortage is having cascading impacts on our students. Specialists like English Language Learner teachers or reading and math interventionists are being called in to teach classes, leaving their students without needed supports. Teachers are being asked to cover additional classes during their planning periods and breaks, and then spend more time after hours grading and preparing lessons, all while being told to remember to practice self-care. This all adds up to a system stretched beyond capacity.
State funding is woefully inadequate in each of these situations. Our school funding formula fails to provide enough school nurses, psychologists, social workers, mental health professionals and counselors to meet students’ growing needs. The antiquated state funding model forces districts, particularly in low-income areas, to make difficult decisions about what supports they can afford to provide for students.
Let’s not fool ourselves, though. The system is working exactly as designed. While Washingtonians agree that each of our students deserves a quality public education with the needed supports to learn, certain corporate interests are trying to divide us by suggesting that there just isn’t enough funding to go around. This false narrative denies our students the full opportunity to succeed now and in their futures. It also erodes support for public education, fueling the push for privatization.
Federal COVID funds were meant to provide a stopgap solution to meet additional needs during the pandemic, but their temporary nature makes them a poor solution. Districts are hesitant to hire staff when they know the funding will dry up and the staff will have to be let go in a few years. Moreover, many of these challenges won’t go away when the pandemic wanes.
We know the truth. There are enough resources if the wealthy pay their fair share. The scarcity mindset that’s pushing educators to the brink and denying students the supports they need comes from forcing our state’s priority programs to fight for scraps. Our students deserve better.
It is past time for our state to reimagine its upside-down tax code. We have extraordinary wealth in many of our communities, yet those with the greatest ability to contribute pay far less toward public education and other programs than do our working families. The recently-passed capital gains tax is a good first step toward making this right, but we have a long way to go.
Students cannot learn when they’re struggling with mental or physical health challenges or when their reading interventionist is pulled to teach a different class. A successful future for our state depends on each of our students having the tools for success. One important step is ensuring wealthy community members pay their share. We can and must do better.