Paraeducators and teachers hold signs that say "#UnionYES."
Members of four local unions representing paraeducators and teachers stand for a photo with state senators Jan Hochadel and Matthew Lesser. Credit: Contributed photo / AFT Connecticut
Shellye Davis

Our students and our schools are in crisis.

With over 1,300 paraeducator vacancies in school districts across Connecticut – with the vast majority in special education – it is crucial that we recognize the essential role that paraeducators play in supporting student success.

Paraeducators are the unsung heroes who work tirelessly to create an inclusive and supportive learning environment for our students. We work alongside teachers, providing one-on-one assistance to students with special needs, leading small group instruction, and providing real-time translation for English language learners.

By providing direct support to students with special needs and disabilities, paraeducators help close the achievement gap.

However, our exceptionally low wages, unaffordable health insurance, and lack of retirement benefits have caused paraeducators to leave the profession in droves and made it nearly impossible to recruit new ones.

These vacancies represent a large hole in our school system, and it threatens the educational outcomes of countless students. It also means that students with special needs are not getting the assistance they need.

Schools in low-income neighborhoods are more likely to bear these costs. And students with disabilities – those who primarily benefit from the work of a paraeducator – lose out the most.

But there is a solution.

Over a hundred paraeducators, teachers, parents, and advocates testified in front of the Education and Appropriations Committees earlier this year to plead with legislators to invest in our students by investing in their paraeducators.

Our proposal would have ensured that paraeducators are paid a living wage, provided affordable health insurance and retirement security, and delivered professional development and training.

Instead of investing in these critical education professionals, lawmakers never even called our bill for a vote. And once again, paraeducators, who are mostly women and workers of color, have been ignored.

Ultimately, it’s the students who suffer.

This is a crisis. By not taking action this legislative session, elected officials are letting students fall even further behind.

In the last two years, the State of Connecticut has had massive budget surpluses.

Let’s be clear. Connecticut can afford to do this. We have a nearly 3 billion-dollar surplus this year – the second highest in the state’s history. It was only topped by last year’s record 4.3 billion dollar surplus.

That’s a surplus of over 7 billion-dollars in the last two years.

We keep hearing that we can’t boost paraeducator wages and benefits this year despite these record-breaking surpluses.

If not now, when?

The General Assembly is the only one that can resolve this crisis. But they continue to fail to take meaningful steps to improve the pay, health care, and retirement benefits of paraeducators.

If the legislature was a student, they would immediately be put on an intervention plan – because they are desperately close to failing again.

When observers inevitably wring their hands when scores show that our students have fallen even further behind, we will look back on this moment as the time we had an opportunity to finally make a substantial difference in the lives of our students, but elected officials instead decided to do nothing.

There is still time left to act. As legislators negotiate the budget, they must not forget our students and the paraeducators that help them be successful.

The time is now. The money’s there. We just need our elected officials to care enough about our students and their paraeducators to include us in their budget.

To ensure the best outcomes for our students, we must invest in the paraeducators who directly impact their educational outcomes. A living wage and quality benefits will help retain and attract new paraeducators, which will help students thrive.

Lawmakers must recognize the urgency of this crisis and allocate the necessary funding in the budget for paraeducators so we can make sure every child receives the support they need to succeed.

But I fear that legislators will once again leave our paraeducators and our students behind.

Shellye Davis is a paraeducator at the Expeditionary Learning Academy at Moylan School (ELAMS), president of the Hartford Federation of Paraeducators, AFT Local 2221 and serves as co-chair of the School Paraeducator Advisory Council.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of