By definition, an aide is someone who assists or helps. But between rising responsibilities, federal eligibility requirements, difficult working conditions and inadequate pay and benefits, our teacher aides are themselves in need of assistance.

Teacher aides are invaluable in schools across Texas, often taking on instructional responsibilities and tutoring in addition to helping with classroom management and lesson preparation. Some districts limit the use of aides to certain areas, such as assisting with special education students, working in bilingual classrooms or helping supervise very large classes (such as P.E.); others provide aides to help teachers in the regular classroom.

According to the annual “Salaries and Benefits” survey conducted by the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators (with 68 percent of districts responding), the average salary for a teacher aide in Texas is $9.94/hour, or $14,348 annually. However, there is quite a range of pay for teacher aides.

Some districts (including, ironically, Happy Independent School District) pay beginning aides at the current minimum wage, which is $5.15 per hour. The highest starting wage among responding districts was reported by Dallas’ Highland Park ISD, at $14.09. Dallas ISD pays an average wage of $16.18, the highest in the survey, and tops out at $23.28.

Many aides may be living near federal poverty levels, and it is not at all unusual for an instructional aide to qualify for government assistance. Depending on family size and other income, teacher aides and their families may be eligible for WIC (Women, Infants and Children program), CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), Medicaid or other assistance programs. Given the high costs of health insurance, housing and child care, it is certain that many teacher aides are struggling to get by.

Meanwhile, the requirements for teacher aides have increased considerably. Most notably, the federal No Child Left Behind Act imposed a new eligibility requirement affecting all paraprofessionals that became effective at the end of the 2005-06 school year. This law mandates that paraprofessionals must have completed at least two years of college (48 hours), have an associate’s or higher degree, or pass an assessment to demonstrate knowledge of and ability to assist in the instruction of reading, writing and mathematics. And under Texas law, all paraprofessionals must be certified through the State Board for Educator Certification.

Though the state of Texas previously adopted minimum salary schedules for virtually all categories of personnel, including paraprofessionals, those schedules fell by the wayside as a result of the landmark reform bill, House Bill 72, passed in a special session in 1984. Since that time, employees such as aides who are not subject to the state minimum salary schedule have no state guidance for salaries, and are subject only to federal Fair Labor Standards Act protections, such as the minimum wage requirement.

In 2001, lawmakers adopted the statewide school employee health insurance program, in which a direct funding stream was provided not only to teachers but to all employees in the form of a $1,000 health insurance supplement (the supplement was later reduced to $500 for most employees and eliminated entirely for administrators). This was the first post-HB 72 involvement by the state in salary issues affecting employees other than teachers, counselors, nurses and librarians. Since then, we have met with significant legislative resistance from those who regret the 2001 funding structure, and who believe that the compensation of personnel should be a matter of local control.

Implementation of a paraprofessional salary schedule or other means of salary improvement at the state level is a TCTA priority, and we will continue to pursue increased compensation and benefits. A healthy state economy that allows for new education funding, and a more teacher-friendly legislature, would help improve the climate in the coming years and we may see more success in this area in 2007. Legislators also may be receptive to non-salary proposals that would benefit aides, such as increased legal protections or a duty-free lunch requirement. We welcome ideas from TCTA members as we prepare our legislative program for the next legislative session.

Until then, we encourage our CTA affiliates across the state to develop compensation/benefit proposals that will help ensure that paraprofessionals can afford to remain in the classroom. We can’t afford to lose them.