The often-unsung heroes of education deserve a living wage now

Sarasota District Schools, Transportation. Photo from Facebook page, Sarasota District Schools, Transportation.

When I taught at Turie T. Small Elementary in Daytona Beach, I would give new teachers a few pieces of advice. They should join their union, they should seek out great learning opportunities, and they needed to make friends with the real people who ran the school: the custodial and secretarial staff.

Those employees, along with paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and others are collectively known as education staff professionals, and this Wednesday, Nov. 18, is a day set aside to honor their work during American Education Week.

There are more than 100,000 ESPs who work in Florida’s schools. As with teachers, education staff professional jobs are filled primarily by women; unlike teachers, the majority belong to racial or ethnic minorities. These workers who are all too often overlooked are the heartbeat of public education.

When school campuses shut down this spring, untold numbers of bus drivers turned their vehicles into mobile hot spots to help students without internet access.

Meanwhile, food service workers like Angela Anglin at Ransom Middle School near Pensacola worked tirelessly to ensure students didn’t miss a meal. When the entire world stopped, education staff professionals didn’t miss a beat as they continued to go above and beyond the call of duty.

Despite the vital role they play in educating Florida’s children, these essential workers struggle to make ends meet and are often paid at or just above the minimum wage.

The passage of Amendment 2 — raising Florida’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026 — will finally put these educational heroes on the path to a living wage, but there is no need to wait.

Last year when the governor and Legislature passed a bill to raise salaries for beginning teachers, the Florida Education Association stood strongly to advocate for all education employees to be included.

The teacher’s aide who works one-on-one with struggling students is every bit as deserving of a living wage as the teacher they work alongside of.

The bus driver who transports students safely to and from school each day should not have to choose between making payments on their personal vehicle, purchasing prescription drugs, or paying the utility bill.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “All work that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance,” and the education staff professionals who work in Florida’s schools uplift humanity every single day.

Just as a child can tell you the name of their favorite teacher without hesitation, so too can they tell you the names of the education staff professionals without whom their education would be incomplete.

On this day that is set aside to honor those who alongside teachers to support the work of student excellence, we are calling on state lawmakers to do right by education staff professionals.

Make no mistake about it, investing in education staff professionals is investing in students.

As the 2021 legislative session approaches, we demand lawmakers invest in Florida’s students by providing districts the necessary funds to pay their educational staff professionals a living wage now.