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NEA News

A Struggle for a Living Wage

In inflation adjusted dollars, earnings for paraeducators, food service professionals, school bus drivers, and other education support professionals have declined over the past decade.
ESP pay
Published: April 28, 2022
This article originally appeared on

Key Takeaways

  1. The National Education Association this week released the Education Support Professional Earnings Report, which offers a breakdown of ESP pay in K-12 and higher education.

According to a 2021 National Education Association survey of its members, 37 percent of PK-12 education support professionals (ESP) work two or more jobs. A little more than a third work their extra job(s) inside the school system. Twenty-eight percent have a permanent position outside of education, and 29 percent have a temporary position outside of education.

While some call it moonlighting or a side hustle, for too many educators across the nation working a second, sometimes a third job, is just doing what is necessary to make ends meet. Chronic low pay for ESPs, who include school bus drivers, food service professionals, paraeducators, custodial and maintenance staff and more, is one of the main contributors—along with lack of respect, inclusion, and crushing workloads—behind the widespread staff shortages that have hit school districts across the nation.

“For decades, America’s educators have been chronically underappreciated and shamefully underpaid,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “Throughout this persistent and ongoing pandemic, they have demonstrated their commitment to all students. After persevering through the hardest school years in recent memory, our educators are exhausted and feeling less and less optimistic about their futures."

The State of ESP Pay

"Our bus drivers are struggling to start with,” says Henry Sanchez, a bus driver from Michigan. “The pay isn’t good enough to keep people or hire new drivers. If you have a job that keeps you in poverty, it’s not a good job."

“Many ESPs have to work more than one job, and you can’t be tired working with students,” adds Margaret Powell, a data manager in Wake County, North Carolina. Powell's 17-year-old son makes more per hour at McDonald's after five months than many ESPs make after years on the job.

Education support professionals are earning less than they did 10 years ago, when adjusted for inflation.
Education support professionals are earning less than they did 10 years ago, when adjusted for inflation.

After the gains generated by the #RedForEd movement in 2018-19, educator pay across the nation has stagnated . That's according to new salary/earnings reports released by NEA this week. For the first time this year, in addition to the Teacher Salary Benchmark Report and Rankings and Estimates, NEA also released the ESP Earnings Report, which offers a breakdown of ESP pay in K-12 and higher education.

The NEA data reveals that in all school job categories, pay is lower now than it was in 2012, when adjusted for inflation. The nearly 2.9 million ESPs working in public education are no exception.

The average salary for ESPs working full-time (more than three-quarters of all ESPs) rose from $30,819 in 2011-12 to $35,124 in 2020-21. However, when adjusted for inflation, the earnings for ESP in 2012 dollars have actually declined from $30,819 to $30,279. 

K-12 ESPs (75% of the ESP workforce) who work full-time earned an average $32,837, while higher education ESPs (25% of the workforce) who work full-time earned an average $44,225.

The report also found that 13.7 percent of full-time K-12 ESPs earned less than $15,000, and 27.8 percent earned between $15,000 and $24,999. Within higher education, 17.4 percent earned less than $25,000, and 7.5 percent earned less than $15,000. 

Overall, across the U.S., the average salary paid to ESPs is at least $10,000 below a basic living wage in every state but one (Maryland).

Despite the sobering news, encouraging signs can be found in collective bargaining, according to the report. ESPs in states with collective bargaining statutes earn almost $6,000 more a year, on average, than those in states where collective bargaining is prohibited.

union advantage for esps
Union ESPs have the power to negotiate for better pay.

In 2022, union power has also been on display in the halls of state capitols.

In March, New Mexico lawmakers approved a bill that guarantee a 7 percent raise for all school employees. A few weeks later in Mississippi, educator advocacy helped secure the passage of a bill providing the largest pay increase the state’s teachers and teaching assistants have ever seen. And last week, Alabama educators celebrated the passage of the largest education budget in state history, which includes a pay increase for all public education employees and goes into effect on October 1.

"If we want to reverse course and keep qualified teachers in the classroom and caring professionals in schools," said Pringle, "then we must increase educator pay across the board and expand access to collective bargaining and union membership for all those working in public education."

Educator Pay in Your State


Keeping the Promise of Public Education

ESEA is the largest ESP local in the United States and is a full-service employee association which is an affiliate of the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) and the National Education Association (NEA), the largest national association representing education employees in the United States.