Andy HillBy Sen. Andy Hill

In my work with people with developmental disabilities, their families and advocates, one of the recurring issues I heard was that more than half the instruction for students with disabilities was from paraeducators. I learned that there is a whole class of educators who have special knowledge in teaching students with autism, language barriers, behavioral issues or many other specific needs. There are also a significant number that specialize in English language learning. The more I learned, the more I realized these paraeducators were crucial supports to our schools.

The problem was they had no professional career structure as paraeducators. Teachers have certification and employment standards and there are standards in each of their specialties, but paraeducators sit in a gap between recognized careers. As we hone in on how we can close the opportunity gap for kids with special needs, paraeducators are a bridge for helping these kids learn.

That’s why last year I passed a bill that formed a workgroup to develop career standards and pathways for paraeducators. No state in the country had ever attempted this. After the workgroup submitted their report, we developed legislation that would create a career pathway for paraeducators. It would create standards, oversight, certification, degrees, endorsements and professional development for these hardworking professionals. The bill passed the Senate with major bipartisan support and an overwhelming majority.

This is simply smart policy: Find the people who are doing the work we need most and empower them to keep going. My hope is that these standards also will help drive more of these professionals into the ranks of classroom teachers, infusing our teaching corps with more specialized knowledge and cultural competency.

One of the difficulties facing schools with major opportunity gaps between those lacking the language skills or overcoming disabilities is that there is no link to connect these students into successful learning. The more paraeducators we keep, develop and eventually hire as teachers, the more we can meet students where they are at with their many diverse and specialized ways of learning.

Much of the education debate this year is taking place around major spending increases and teacher evaluations, but the real struggle for those students on the margins is in specialized learning. The students with the lowest achievement are often those still struggling with language or managing an intellectual disability. More money isn’t going to solve this. We need proven professionals who are brought into their career path of helping the students who need it most.

This is simply smart policy that helps kids. Not every solution has to start with a dollar sign.