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Originally published Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

State should support workers who support our schools

With the start of another legislative session, education once again is taking center stage. But the state needs to step up to an issue that...

Special to The Times

With the start of another legislative session, education once again is taking center stage. But the state needs to step up to an issue that hasn't received sufficient attention: reforming and modernizing the way in which we fund basic educational-support programs in our schools and universities.

Our schools are changing. We are raising standards and expecting more from students. At the same time, our schools, from kindergarten to college, are taking on more responsibilities, and dealing with new problems. The people who support our teachers and faculty — educational-support professionals — are more important than ever.

We depend on bus drivers, and the vehicles they operate, to get kids safely to and from school. Custodians are critical in performing routine maintenance on buildings and grounds, saving money on repairs and keeping schools and campuses safe.

As more students depend on schools to provide hot, nutritious meals, our food-service workers become more vital. And, school secretaries are the glue that holds our schools together.

These traditional workers have provided basic support for generations of students. Today, however, there are new employees working in our schools, providing modern, essential services.

Highly trained paraeducators are helping students achieve our new, higher academic standards. It's a big title for an important job. Like their counterparts in other fields, such as paramedics and paralegals, paraeducators assist teachers, and are a smart and efficient way to reduce class size by putting more trained staff in the classroom.

Technology staffers maintain the hardware and software and provide help-desk functions in our new, high-tech schools, while security guards keep our kids and campuses safe from drugs, gangs and other threats. Health technicians in many schools have largely replaced the traditional school nurse, and are called upon to dispense prescription medications — even administer certain injections to diabetic and other students.

And, in our colleges and universities, educational-support professionals support the work of faculty and administrators, and help prepare students to compete in today's global economy.

Unfortunately, school funding isn't keeping up with these new realities. Today, the state funds less than half the cost of these critical educational-support programs. Local school districts are forced to rely on levies to fund the balance and often have to make painful choices in their budgets when money is tight.

The problem is similar in our higher-education system. Many programs that are integral to the operation of a university are forced to be "self-sustaining" and pay their own way through user surcharges. When budgets are tight, dedicated support professionals are the first to be let go.

Why is this allowed to happen? Because our state's school-funding system has changed very little over the past 30 years and it doesn't recognize the heightened importance of support professionals and the jobs they do. The state provides school districts most of the funding they need to hire teachers and administrators, but districts are often on their own when it comes to funding everything else it takes to run a modern school system.

We believe it is time to modernize and reform school funding, and we are asking the governor and Legislature to step up and make common-sense changes to our outdated system.

Washington needs adequate, stable funding for our colleges and universities in order to attract and retain outstanding support staff. We need to hold tuition costs in check in order to keep higher education an affordable option for working families.

The state needs to fully fund pupil transportation, and we need to recognize the importance of custodians, nutrition workers, secretaries, and other school-support staff. We need to provide fair compensation everywhere in the state to attract and maintain quality school employees. And, most important, we need to change the school-funding formula so school districts have adequate state resources for these critical, basic programs, rather than relying on the uncertainty of levies.

Randy Dorn, a former state representative, is the executive director of Public School Employees of Washington, representing more than 27,000 school-support workers. He has worked as a high-school teacher and principal, and chaired the state House Education Committee.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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