Idealism goes only so far for underpaid educators.

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AS a veteran community-college educator, I am often asked to serve as a reference for younger teachers hoping to get one of the few full-time positions that occasionally open in our field.

What I really feel like doing is pulling them aside and telling them to get out of this line of work while they are still young enough to change careers. There’s no future in it. Their idealism might sustain them for a while, as it did me. But after years with only infrequent and meager pay increases, they will begin to have regrets.

Washington’s community colleges, often vaunted as the place for a second chance and a driver of economic growth, are being left behind.

‘My take’

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I’ve been a full-time, tenured faculty member in a local community college for almost three decades, but I only make about as much as starting Washington State Patrol troopers will make when their new pay raise kicks in. At my college, we have received only one 3-percent cost-of-living adjustment in the last six years, which doesn’t even come close to covering inflation.

To teach in a community college, a minimum of a master’s degree is required. I have two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree, yet my wife, with only a two-year nursing degree, makes more than I do. Public-school teachers in Everett earn as much as $90,000, and they don’t have to work in the summer.

Contributions from community-college teachers are less tangible than the work of state troopers and nurses — we don’t have to deal with drunken drivers or monitor IVs. But I would like to think that we help keep people out of the back of patrol cars and emergency rooms. Education is positively correlated with lower incarceration rates and better health.

Even in these circumstances, we continue to do our work. I’ll be grading upward of 100 pages of student work this week alone, requiring at least a couple evenings and half a day of this weekend, outside of normal work hours. I used to see the extra work as just part of my job, but it has come to seem like exploitation.

Under such circumstances, it is only human to begin to cut one’s losses, to not be so willing to spend that extra hour meeting with students or devoting yet another evening to grading papers and preparing for the next day’s lessons.

Washington state does not seem to be aware of what a treasure it has in its community colleges, but we will only be taken for granted for so long. It’s not only about whether bright young people will see the community college as a viable career option, it’s about whether Washington wants to have an effective and responsive community-college system in the future.