PSRPs launch full-court press on ESEA reauthorization
Members travel from as far as Alaska to talk with their representatives in Congress.
FROM GRASS-ROOTS LOBBYING on Capitol Hill to a telephone town hall meeting, the AFT has focused intense energy on reauthorization of the keystone federal law for K-12 education: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
More than 40 AFT activists from 19 states traveled to Washington, D.C., in March and April, urging their senators to preserve essential ingredients and advocate for changes in ESEA (known in its current version as No Child Left Behind). ESEA also was the focus of a telephone town hall meeting that drew more than 4,000 activists.
The visits connected the faces and voices of classroom educators with AFT priorities. Among those goals: to maintain paraprofessional qualification requirements, to relieve the pressure of high-stakes tests, to expand access to early education and to maintain ESEA’s original purpose—keeping funds focused on schools with high concentrations of poverty.
Paraprofessionals and school-related personnel have been more active than ever during this year’s reauthorization. They are explaining to Congress and their communities the necessity of keeping the law’s language that all paraprofessionals must attain certain levels of professional development and certification, such as college credits or equivalent exams—a fact that AFT President Randi Weingarten and Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson pointed out in a letter to Senate leaders. The AFT has advocated for paraprofessional standards for more than 35 years—an effort Johnson has led since she served on a national task force about para certification in 1979.
PSRPs began mobilizing in the weeks leading up to lobby day. PSRP Chair Ruby Newbold, president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees and an AFT vice president, encouraged all members to make their voices heard in Washington and to keep parents and other allies informed at home. It’s important that PSRPs continue to push for school resources, she said, urging them to call or write their representatives.
“We need to put pressure on both sides of the aisle,” she said.
And in fact, AFT pressure on the House side yielded a victory for paraprofessionals. Thanks to thousands of calls, letters and tweets, the House voted 218-201—winning over 35 Republican members—to restore the qualification requirements for paraprofessionals working in high-poverty schools. While there is much AFT members don’t like about NCLB, one thing we do appreciate is the provision that mandates training and stops school districts from hiring paras with little experience in education.
Awesome lobby days
PSRPs were well represented during lobby day visits. At the office of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), paraprofessional Dien Forbes, a member of the United Teachers of Dade, said she has used every bit of her training in behavioral therapy, bilingual skills and autism to help students learn. She expressed hope that PSRP training and professional standards will continue under ESEA.
Alfreda Martin, a pre-K and kindergarten paraprofessional, also from the United Teachers of Dade, described how the teacher in her classroom went out on maternity leave for three months and was replaced with three different substitutes. “By me being the para, knowing the students and knowing the curriculum, it went smoothly,” Martin told a Senate staffer. “You need a highly qualified paraprofessional.”
MaryFran Wessler, a paraprofessional at Peoria High School in central Illinois and president of the Peoria Federation of Support Staff, traveled to Washington because she’s concerned about further cuts to programs that fight concentrated poverty, and she wants the Senate to maintain paraprofessional qualification standards in its version of ESEA.
Wessler said she’s seeing more students trying to cope with symptoms of poverty, such as too little food and too much crime in their neighborhoods. She showed staffers in the office of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) a list of trainings she has taken to mitigate the effects of poverty and to maintain her qualifications as a paraprofessional—from emotional, social and cognitive training to understanding medical conditions and administering emergency medical procedures.
When one staffer expressed surprise about the need for diabetes training, Wessler explained: “When a kid drops into a coma in front of you, you need to know what to do and not do.”
Because of loss of funding, teachers are dealing with increasing class sizes, Wessler adds, making paras more important than ever. “Professional development is huge,” she says. “We need that for our students.”
Marcia Watson, an administrative paraprofessional who works in the office of Proviso West High School near Chicago, says all paras in Illinois now know the right way to uphold standards and handle school procedures. “If you don’t have qualified people, then you basically just have baby sitters,” says Watson.
Representing PSRPs in Ohio, Kris Schwarzkopf, a paraprofessional and PSRP leader from the Toledo Federation of Teachers, met with the staff of Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
In April, a delegation of PSRPs came all the way from Alaska to visit one of their senators. PSRP leader Sharon Baker, president of the TOTEM Association of Educational Support Personnel in Anchorage, joined TOTEM Vice President Sandy Thompson and AFT field rep Jennifer Nicolello at the offices of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to share their thoughts with the senator on ESEA’s Title I funding. "Good programs are not cheap, and they keep getting cut,” Baker said.
Emails flooding in
PSRPs were among AFT members who submitted 18,000 comments to Congress on our priorities for ESEA.
“We have to make sure that all our paraprofessionals are not only qualified, but have the continuing professional development needed to perform the duties they are hired for,” wrote Patricia Speach, a teaching assistant and vice president of the Baldwinsville (N.Y.) Educational Support Professionals.
“I am a classified employee with a master’s degree in public administration,” wrote Fern Reisner, a member of the AFT College Staff Guild in Los Angeles. “It is important to keep the standards and requirements high, not water them down or discard them.”
Noting that only 11 states have paraprofessional standards codified under state law, and that the rest of the states will have no such provisions unless the federal standards continue, a number of PSRPs specifically asked Congress not to return this responsibility to the states.
Members also invoked the original, bipartisan intent of NCLB to help students. “Without proper training for paraprofessionals, both initially and continuing, children would most certainly be left behind,” explained Donna Flanigan, a member of the Southwest Suburban Federation of Teachers in Orland Park, Ill.
Even several academics wrote to Congress on the importance of paraprofessionals in the classroom. “I am a Ph.D. student in curriculum and instruction at Purdue University and have been in many different schools, seeing paraprofessionals in many varied capacities,” wrote Sue Ellen Richardson, a member of the Indiana Association for the Education of Young Children. “Paraprofessionals require training, as they provide vital support for students. Without paraprofessional training, students would not receive the support they need.”
But as always, PSRPs themselves say it best.
“Do not leave us out of the equation,” wrote Janet Eberhardt, a member of the United Educators of San Francisco. “We need the skills to fully assist in teaching and learning. We do the work and we must be supported in the reauthorization.”
Follow-up is critical
These visits, comments and calls, combined with follow-up both in Washington, D.C., and back home, will be critical in the weeks ahead. Leaders in the Senate proposed a bipartisan bill in April, while the House of Representatives could vote any time on its draft. Differences between the two bills will then need to be ironed out before a bill is offered to the White House—creating a critical window of opportunity for PSRPs to communicate with their lawmakers.
The AFT’s telephone town hall provided thousands of activists with breaking news on ESEA reauthorization and allowed them to put that information to work immediately. After the call, many participants took a moment to patch their phone connection into the offices of their senators—leaving messages that highlight what public schools need in ESEA for the profession and the students they serve.
These types of calls, letters, emails and visits have a big impact on Capitol Hill, AFT President Randi Weingarten told the town hall crowd. They can help our union seize this opportunity to fashion a good new law. “I thank you for wanting to make a difference in the lives of children and for standing up for the respect and dignity you deserve,” Weingarten said.