The following op-ed by NYSUT President Andrew Pallotta appeared in the Eagle News Online Nov. 19, 2019.
If classroom teachers are the face of Central New York’s public education system, its bus drivers, cafeteria workers, school secretaries and custodians are its backbone.
They drive our kids safely to school in hazardous weather on busy roads; cook nutritious meals and supervise the lunchrooms; and work incredibly hard keeping our classrooms and hallways spotlessly clean. School secretaries maintain important school records, while teachers’ aides and assistants offer valuable support in overflowing classrooms, while often providing one-on-one instruction to students with special needs.
On Nov. 20, New York State marks School-Related Professionals Recognition Day – and it has each third Tuesday of November since it was signed into law by Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2007. While there will be no parades or fireworks, it’s nevertheless appropriate for New Yorkers to remember these unsung heroes of public education and to appreciate our state’s nearly 100,000 paraprofessionals in a broader economic context.
Paraprofessional jobs first emerged in the 1960s as a product of federal anti-poverty programs. Research by Columbia University doctoral fellow Nick Juravich finds that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provided millions of dollars in new funding to public schools to combat poverty, and school systems responded by hiring thousands of people – primarily African-American and Latino mothers of schoolchildren – to work in neighborhood schools.
School leaders correctly theorized that these new workers would improve instruction and discipline by bringing knowledge of their communities into schools; enhance communications by acting as conduits between teachers and the community; and create steady careers, respect and opportunities for women entering the workplace, many for the first time.
NYSUT’s largest local affiliate — the United Federation of Teachers — began organizing school workers in 1969. In the nearly 50 years since, school-related professionals have transformed our school workplaces and contributed mightily to the success of public education in New York State.
The experiment has turned into a “win-win” for workers, as well.
Today, because of their union membership, school-related professionals throughout Central New York enjoy significant benefits — good health care, a dignified retirement through the state’s pension system and opportunities for further education and career advancement that do not generally exist for similar jobs in the private sector. Salaries, too, have improved with unionization and are generally higher than in the private sector. Still, in many cases, school-related professionals earn less than they should considering the invaluable jobs they perform and the challenges they face.
Because they carry union cards, these workers can also organize and fight collectively to make their workplaces better and fairer. For example, Gov. Andrew Cuomo this fall signed union-backed legislation that will now provide the same benefits for “labor class employees” that are provided for non-competitive class employees under Civil Service Law.
This new law means that many NYSUT members who work in transportation; food service; buildings and grounds; and other titles — and are considered “labor class employees” — will benefit from some form of due process and cannot be dismissed based on someone’s whim.
These and other benefits for our school-related professionals are hard-fought and well-deserved. New York’s school bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria workers and other school-related professionals do a terrific job. If you’re around one today, seek them out and say “thank you” for doing their part to make our public schools great.
Andy Pallotta is president of the more than 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.