When Rebecca Sauter started working with students with disabilities in Bellingham schools 15 years ago, she already had a bachelor's degree in psychology and childhood development.
Sauter could also rely on her perspective to help students overcome familiar barriers: she herself had a learning disability and was raising children with special needs. Still, Sauter recalled feeling overwhelmed in her first year as a special-education paraeducator — a position commonly known as teacher's aide or instructional assistant.
About 27,000 paraeducators work in schools across the state, but the training they get before their first day on the job depends entirely on what their school district can afford. No other state requires training for paraeducators, according to the Public School Employees (PSE) union. A state law passed in 2017 will standardize such training throughout Washington — but only if lawmakers actually fund the mandate this year.
"When I started there was no training," Sauter said. "I was given a student with some pretty high (needs) and told, 'This is who you're working with. Go for it.' "
That's not uncommon. "You do your best to figure things out, to get as much direction from the very, very busy classroom teacher," she said. "There's a lot of trial and error, and that's not always best for the student."
That's why Sauter traveled to Olympia last week to lobby lawmakers to fulfill a promise they made to paraeducators two years ago.
The 2017 law set new hiring-eligibility rules for paraeducators. The bill also required school districts to provide four days of training for all paraeducators by Sept. 1, 2019. And paraeducators, who already provide the bulk of instruction for English learners and students with disabilities, could earn a specialty certificate after completing an additional round of training in special education or bilingual instruction.
The only catch? Lawmakers didn't pay for that change — so they would need to do so this legislative session if they want the training to start by the September deadline.
"We're all hungry for it," Sauter said of the training. "Anytime my school district offers anything for (training), I do it. How else would we be able to up our game or provide better service for our kids?"
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the price tag for the training days competed with several other legislative priorities to improve special education.
"Certainly we want to make sure we get as much training as we can for our" paraeducators, he added. "I'd love to go up to four days, and if there's a way to get there, I certainly support that."
With 25 days left in the legislative session, budget negotiators will have to reach a compromise on exactly how much to spend on paraeducator training.
The PSE union has pushed for better training since 2012, and government-relations director Doug Nelson asked members of the House appropriations committee Monday to reconsider their budget.
"Whether you know it or not, 21 million hours of instruction to students who are poor, disabled or immigrants are provided by paraeducators who receive no training," Nelson said. "That's not right."
Regardless of the final budget, in November, the Legislature will receive a report on a pilot program for both the general training and specialty certificates. The Issaquah school district joined the pilot and enrolled nearly three dozen paraeducators, including Melanie Zimmerman.
She's only in her second year working with students with disabilities at Briarwood Elementary. But Zimmerman credited the training program for helping her get a better grasp of the special-education program.
Zimmerman said, "It just helped me understand the 'why' behind what we're doing."