As a program specialist at the Special Parent Information Network, Amanda Kaahanui spends a lot of time looking at big-picture issues facing special education students and parents across the state.
But as the parent of a child with special needs, nothing is more important — or has a bigger impact on her son’s education — than teachers and educational assistants who work in the classroom with her 12-year-old son.
“The special education teacher being quality, the general education teacher being quality, the educational assistant being quality. That is the most important thing in my world,” Kaahanui said. “If they don’t have a good day, he doesn’t have a good day.”
Aside from classroom teachers, there are few school employees who play a more critical role in keeping special education students on track than educational assistants. There are also few jobs at the Department of Education that are lower paid or harder to recruit for.
The starting salary for educational assistants is less than that of cafeteria helpers or low-level school custodians. Depending on how they are hired, EAs may not always qualify for union representation, and they have limited professional development opportunities.
Hawaii has been grappling for years with a shortage of qualified special education teachers. But a less public — though perhaps equally troubling — challenge is the state’s widespread shortage of educational assistants.
As of Feb. 1, the Department of Education was facing a 25 percent vacancy rate for part-time educational assistants, and also needed to hire an additional 235 full-time educational assistants to be fully staffed.
Kaahanui says her son has had seven or eight different aides since entering kindergarten.
The educational assistant who had the biggest positive impact on Kaahanui’s son left the DOE several years ago for a better paying job working at Costco.
“They are required to have an associate’s degree, they work directly with my kid, and yet they make less money than the janitor,” Kaahanui said. “For me as a parent that’s just a tragedy. How do you get good quality people and keep them?”
Educational assistants, also known as paraprofessionals or teachers aides, help teachers with a range of tasks — from tutoring to helping students with medical conditions and even changing diapers.
An EA is not a babysitter though, said Suzanne Mulcahy, a former special education teacher and current assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at the Department of Education.
“An EA is someone who is going to come alongside the teacher to make sure the student can keep up,” Mulcahy said.
It’s never been a particularly respected or revered career, although changes to federal education law in the 2000s elevated the positions somewhat by implementing basic education and certification requirements.
In Hawaii, EAs are only assigned to work in special education. The union that covers educational assistants — which is not the same as the teachers union — currently has 2,636 educational assistants on its rolls. More than a quarter of EAs are part-time employees.
Education assistants are allocated across the state based on the number of special education students in each complex area, or district.
When a school has a shortage of educational assistants — or other special education workers like occupational therapists — it will contract out for workers, Mulcahy said.
“They are required to have an associate’s degree, they work directly with my kid, and yet they make less money than the janitor.” — Amanda Kaahanui
This can present a financial challenge for schools and add to a sense of urgency — and frustration — for administrators looking to fill positions, Mulcahy said.
When a position isn’t filled, the money stays at the state level. That means paying for services that an in-house educational assistant otherwise would have provided costs schools money that could have been spent elsewhere.
Although their role varies from classroom to classroom, their biggest task is making sure that special education students can keep up with their peers, Mulcahy said.
That means education and training is important. Depending on the grade assignment, educational assistants have to know algebra, or have excellent writing skills.
Part of the challenge in finding and recruiting educational assistants is that the position requires 48 college credits, but there are few schools that offer an associate’s degree in education, and only one college in Hawaii with a program targeted toward educational assistants.
In general, people don’t go to school to become an educational assistant, Mulcahy said.
What that means is the recruiting pool for schools is often people who are looking to become support staff at a school and happen to have an associate’s degree.
The DOE used to offer professional development courses for the EAs, but the program was cut several years ago due to budget constraints, Mulcahy said.
Professional development for educational assistants is something the Department of Education is looking at, Mulcahy said, but it’s not the most pressing need.
“First and foremost is, ‘Do you have fully qualified and excellent special education teachers,” Mulcahy said. “And subsequent to that is how can we improve quality of educational assistants.”
Lawmakers, advocacy groups, and the Board of Education are looking at how to lower the vacancy rates for EAs as worries grow over the state of special education in Hawaii.
In the last decade, the achievement gap between special education students and their peers has increased. Substantially. In 2004-05, special education students in the state scored an average of 21 percent lower in math. In 2013-14 that number was 48.8 percent.
And an internal Department of Education audit of the special education program earlier this year raised concerns about a lack of qualified personnel as well as a need for more professional development and training.
Parents, special education advocates, and workers say more changes — and more pay — are needed to entice qualified and talented people to become EAs.
One Board of Education suggestion for recruiting educational assistants has been to make the position a stepping stone to becoming a classroom teacher. That’s something lawmakers are currently considering. Senate Bill 2782 would provide tuition reimbursements for educational assistants who became teachers after more than two years as an assistant in certain hard-to-fill schools.
A career ladder for educational assistants is a worthy goal, but would be unlikely to provide relief for several years, Martha Guinan, chair of the Special Education Advisory Council, wrote in a letter to the Board of Education last month, urging the state to develop a “more robust and timely plan” for dealing with the “chronic shortage.”
But parents, special education advocates, and workers say more changes — and more pay — are needed to entice qualified and talented people to become EAs.
In 2008, after the education requirements had been implemented, the state increased the pay scale for educational assistants. But they still rank at the bottom of school salaries.
The starting salary for an entry-level educational assistant is $25,668 or $2,139 a month. The average pay for educational assistants is $2,600 a month, according to their union. The starting salary for a cafeteria helper is $3,057 a month. The starting pay for a low-level school custodian — a position that requires no prior experience — is $2,997 a month.
The Department of Education has been looking at whether a pay increase is needed for educational assistants and is looking at ways to improve recruitment and outreach efforts, according to a presentation by Barbara Krieg, assistant superintendent of human resources.
The DOE is also working with Leeward Community College, which has a career pathway in place for educational assistants.
Aaron Hess is one of the workers that schools bring in when they don’t have enough educational assistants. He’s worked for two different companies that contract with the Department of Education to bring in paraprofessionals.
Hess says he started his first job at a Hawaii school after he saw an ad one of the companies placed on Craigslist looking for people to work with students with autism. He earns roughly $18 an hour, which is higher than he would make working directly for the DOE.
Still, he says workers at the private companies can struggle with getting job security, steady benefits, and pay raises.
Hess has been trying to start a union for contract paraprofessionals in Hawaii, something he says could help workers and the larger education system.
“By providing better job security, benefits, year-round health insurance, you will have a much better retention rate,” Hess said. “People will stay on the job longer and you will also be able to choose better employees.”