As you drive by our district schools, you may have seen educators gathered outside to call attention to several pervasive problems that affect public school employees here in New Jersey. We may be working to enrich the lives of our students, but we are also mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, and working women and men who simply want to thrive in middle class America. Unfortunately, several years ago, our Legislature—under the influence of then-governor Chris Christie—passed P.L. 2011, Chapter 78, that implemented mandatory insurance deductions for school employees while also increasing our pension contributions. This set off an ongoing set of unintended consequences.

Under Chapter 78, we each saw significant reductions in our take-home pay, despite receiving an increase in salary. We can assure you the opposite occurred. Many of us are working two to three jobs to make ends meet; we can no longer volunteer our time to assist our students because we need to clock in elsewhere; we cannot afford to send our children to college—adding to the ongoing college debt crisis; and, in some cases, we have lost our homes because they are no longer affordable with our reduced income. Quite simply, this legislation left us with less take home pay than we had four, five, or even six years ago. We’re doing the same jobs, with a raise that is only on paper, not in our pockets. This trend cannot continue.

Additionally, the education support professionals (ESPs) in our schools—those men and women who serve as paraprofessionals, secretaries, security guards, custodians, maintenance personnel, bus drivers and more—are often threatened with privatization. When districts want to save money, they fire these dedicated school employees and bring in unqualified, hourly workers hired by an outside firm whose only concern is making a profit, not the wellbeing of the children they serve. Moreover, our ESPs work without just cause protections, which means they can be fired without due process. The power imbalance is unacceptable.

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If we don’t fix this unfairness, the schools in New Jersey will lose the ability to attract and retain the best educators for our children.

That’s why we are taking a stand. Like our colleagues around the country, we are tired of public education taking a backseat to other issues and demand a greater respect for the people who have dedicated their lives to others. We are tired of losing ground, paying more than we should, and—most of all—we are tired of boards balancing their budgets on the backs their employees. It’s time to level the playing field, and—in one unifying voice—we are calling upon those in power to do so.