Editor’s Note: This opinion piece was written by Naomi Baden, executive director for the REA-REAA. Baden is the executive director of the Racine Education Association and Racine Educational Assistants Association, the unions that represent the 2,000 professional educators (licensed and certified teachers, special education specialists, social workers, psychologists, educational assistants and school nurses) of the Racine Unified School District.
There is nothing more important in the achievement and school success of a child than the educator who works with that child. Here in Racine Unified, teachers and educational assistants work every day with our 20,000 students — 60 percent of whom are children living in poverty — to give them the tools and support they need to thrive as citizens, employees, parents, leaders and successful human beings.
Our teachers and education support staff are the primary reason that the Racine Unified School District is slowly climbing up on measures of academic achievement. Teachers and education assistants are the reason graduation rates have risen, and more children are reading and writing. We are the engine behind the successes with students happening every day in Racine Unified.
Having such passionate and skillful educators is essential to student success — but who will be lured into a profession with wages that fail to keep pace with inflation, let alone with comparable careers? How can we expect our caring and compassionate educational assistants to remain in mostly part-time jobs that pay them less than the federal poverty level? Many assistants work two or three jobs just to feed and shelter their own families.
When teacher pay stays stuck for years, it comes at a high cost for schools and kids, who lose good teachers to better-paying professions. Some 20 percent of new public school teachers leave the profession by the end of the first year, and almost half leave within five years. When educational assistants are making so little money or are working so few hours that they are forced to apply for public assistance, we are eating away at the heart and spirit of the Racine Unified School District workforce.
Isn’t it time, then, after four years of attacks on our public schools and public school educators that Racine Unified honor our educators for a change and provide them with a decent and fair wage increase? Is it too much to ask that Racine Unified pay its educational assistants a living wage rather than a wage that is below the federal poverty level for families? Should we be lambasted for asking the Board of Education to provide the workforce with a cost of living increase? After four years of erosion in salaries as a result of Act 10, is it wrong for Racine Unified employees to seek to recoup, in miniscule ways, the thousands of dollars cut from our family income to pay for health care deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses imposed on us since Scott Walker was elected governor?
RUSD touts that it is a district of choice. Families get to choose where their children will attend school. Students get to choose courses of study in secondary schools. Educators get to choose Racine Unified as their home for a career in education. District administrators have a choice as well. It can become transparent and honest about what it is spending taxpayer money on or it can continue to obfuscate and play a shell game with its budget numbers. The Board of Education has the ultimate choice. It can choose to provide for its educators a reasonable compensation package or it can choose to continue down the acrimonious path of conflict and controversy with no end in sight. For the sake of the children, we pray for an honorable resolution of our conflicts.