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NEA News

‘We Must Do Better’: School Support Staff Still Earn Below Living Wage

According to NEA reports, 38 percent of ESPs working in K–12 schools earn less than $25,000, and 12.5 percent earn less than $15,000.
schoolbus driver
Published: April 30, 2024
This article originally appeared on

Key Takeaways

  1. A recent NEA survey found that 53 percent of K‐12 education support professionals (ESP) said they were having a serious or moderate problem making a living wage.
  2. A new NEA report provides earnings data for support professionals working in K–12 schools and higher education institutions. According to the report, among ESPs working full‐time, the average earnings in 2022‐23 was $35,995.
  3. In states with collective bargaining, support professionals earn 16 percent more than their counterparts in states where bargaining is prohibited.

Too many school support professionals, like classroom teachers, endure a lack of respect, lack of support, and poor working conditions. They are also egregiously underpaid. 

These factors are driving the chronic staff shortages in school districts and on college campuses across the nation, which have hit the ranks of education support professionals (ESPs) who include school bus drivers, food service professionals, paraeducators, campus security staff, custodial and maintenance staff and more, especially hard.

School support staff, who make up more than one-third of all public school employees, are essential members of the education workforce. Instead of being rewarded or their dedication, NEA President Becky Pringle said, “they have persevered despite low pay, and staffing and supply shortages that have made it increasingly difficult for them to provide the necessary supports our students need and deserve.”  

In a recent NEA survey of its members, 32 percent of K‐12 ESPs said they were having a significant issue making a living wage, with another 21 percent calling it a moderate problem. Furthermore, more than a quarter reported participating in or utilizing assistance programs, such as free grocery or free meal programs, Medicaid, and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. 

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Just how out-of-reach a livable wage is for many of the 3 million support professionals who work in public education (K-12 and higher education) is highlighted in the just-released 2024 NEA Education Support Professionals Earnings report.    

According to the report, 33 percent of all ESPs working full‐time earn less than $25,000 per year, and 11 percent earn less than $15,000. Among those working in K–12 schools, 38 percent earn less than $25,000, and 12.5 percent earn less than $15,000. Within higher education, 14.0 percent earn less than $25,000, and 6.4 percent earn less than $15,000. 

Among ESPs who work full-time in K-12 schools, the average salary in 2022-23 was $33,756. Overall, the average earning (including ESPS in higher education) was $35,995, an increase of almost $4,800 since 2014. But factoring in inflation, that amount drops to $28,149 in 2014 dollars. 

Nelly Henjes in Pinellas County, Florida says inflation has made her district unaffordable for too many support professionals. A child development assistant and president of the Pinellas County Educational Support Professionals Association, Henjes says many ESPs simply cannot afford to live anywhere close to where they work. 

“You can’t when you make somewhere in between $22,000 and $25,000, not with the cost-of-living increasing as it has over the past few years,” Henjes says. 

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in Alaska, says Susanna Litwiniak, head secretary at Moose Pass School and president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, is constantly scrambling to fill vacant positions due to low pay.

“We've had schools that have gone without custodians for months at a time,” Litwiniak recently told NEA Today. “And you've got teachers filling in, secretaries filling in. Staff have helped in the lunchroom because there aren’t enough food service workers.” 

Educator Pay in Your State

The Union Advantage

According to the NEA report, in 2022-23, Delaware had the highest average K–12 ESP full‐time earnings at $44,237. But the average ESP earnings was above $40,000 in only three additional states—Alaska, New Jersey, and Connecticut—and the District of Columbia.  

At $26,612, Oklahoma had the lowest average K-12 ESP full‐time earnings at $26,612. In five other states— Idaho, Mississippi, Kansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee—the average earnings were below $28,000. 

Once again, as was evident in previous earnings reports, the “union advantage” is real. 

“The good news is that through their unions, educators have demanded respect and a seat at the table and have used the power of their collective voice to demand more,’” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “More for their students, more professional respect, and more pay.”  

ESPs in states with collective bargaining statutes earn almost $6,000 more a year ($38,167 on average), on average, than those in states where collective bargaining is prohibited ($32,308). In states with no bargaining law, but where bargaining may take place, the average earnings is $33,831. 

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But the collective voice of school support professionals is also heard loud and clear in state legislatures across the country. Since 2022, educators have successfully advocated for significant, even historic, pay increases in state such as New Mexico, Mississippi, and Alabama.  

Through their state and local unions, ESPs are also calling for a living wage through a national ESP Bill of Rights campaign. Already launched in Maryland, Illinois, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Michigan, the campaign is calling on lawmakers to invest in support professionals by providing, along with a fair wage, adequate health coverage, paid leave, professional training and education, and a safe and healthy work environment. 

The growing momentum behind the ESP Bill of Rights (Virginia and Delaware recently began developing their own campaigns) is a strong sign that educators and their unions are keeping the pressure on lawmakers to address the chronic problems that are undermining the educator profession. Even in those states that have enacted pay increases for all school employees, the high cost-of-living has diluted those gains—particularly for support professionals. 

More must be done, says Pringle.

“By not stepping up to the plate, [elected leaders] are hurting students’ futures and ignoring the pleas of parents who want them to focus on the critical needs of our students by attracting and retaining teachers, school support staff and higher education faculty and staff,” Pringle said. “We can and must do better.”

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Our Voice = Our Power

When we unite and speak truth to power, we can have an enormous impact. That’s why our members join together to create a future where schools are funded, educators are supported, and students are thriving.

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.