Educators are not OK. And while it may not be breaking news, it has reached a point where our communities can no longer ignore it and we need to do something about it. Staff-related school closures impact families and educators leave the profession frustrated and exhausted. It all falls on the students, who will not get the quality education they deserve. All of this is preventable.
COVID-19 has put our public education system under a microscope, and while the challenges associated with COVID are new, the systems that create these challenges are not. Our students have long been deprived of 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 these nurses are taking on COVID-related duties in addition to their regular jobs, scattering them even more.
The shortage of substitutes and para-educators is not new either. Replacements are expected to have a bachelor’s degree, the pay is low, and most do not receive any benefits. Yet they are essential so that our students have what they need to learn, whether it is one-on-one support, transportation, nutrition or other services. It’s no surprise that recruiting replacement and para-educators is difficult, and increasingly difficult in our tight labor market.
The shortage of sub-teachers and para-educators has cascading impacts on our students. Specialists such as English Language Learner teachers or reading and maths workers are called in to teach, leaving their students without necessary support. Teachers are encouraged to cover extra lessons during their planning periods and breaks, and then spend more after-hours time grading and preparing for lessons, while being instructed not to forget to take care of. themselves. It all adds up to a system stretched beyond its 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 the growing needs of students. The archaic model of public funding forces districts, especially in low-income areas, to make tough decisions about what supports they can afford to provide to students.
Let’s face it, however. The system is working exactly as expected. While Washingtonians agree that each of our students deserves a quality public education with the supports to learn, some business interests try to divide us by suggesting that there just aren’t enough funds for everyone. This false narrative deprives our students of any chance of success now and in their future. It also erodes support for public education, fueling the push for privatization.
Federal COVID funds were supposed to provide an interim solution to meet additional needs during the pandemic, but their temporary nature makes them a poor solution. Districts are reluctant to hire staff when they know funding will dry up and staff will need to be laid off in a few years. Additionally, many of these challenges will not go away when the pandemic subsides.
We know the truth. There are enough resources if the rich pay their fair share. The scarcity mentality that pushes educators to the brink and denies students the support they need stems from our state’s priority programs being forced to fight for the crumbs. Our students deserve better.
It is high time that our state reinvented its tax code upside down. We have extraordinary wealth in many of our communities, but those with the greatest capacity to contribute pay much less for public education and other programs than our working families. The recently passed capital gains tax is a good first step towards a good solution, but we still have a long way to go.
Students cannot learn when they are struggling with mental or physical health issues or when their reading counselor has to teach a different class. A prosperous future for our state depends on each of our students having the tools to succeed. An important step is to ensure that wealthy members of the community pay their share. We can and must do better.