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As leaders representing nearly 7,500 paraeducators across the state, we understand firsthand the critical role that our colleagues play in supporting the education and well-being of our students.

Paraeducators provide one-on-one assistance to students with special needs, assist teachers with classroom management, lead small group instruction, provide real-time translation for English language learners and facilitate communication with families.

We are often the first people that students see when they arrive at school and the last people they see when they leave. Yet we are among the lowest paid school staff, often earning barely above minimum wage.

Many paraeducators are forced to work two or even three jobs just to make ends meet. Pay is so low in some school districts that 100% of their wages goes to health insurance premiums. In Hartford, several paraeducators are experiencing homelessness because of their low wages.

That’s why there are now more than 1,300 paraeducator vacancies in school districts across Connecticut. More than 70% of those vacancies are in special education – meaning the students who would most benefit from the work of paraeducators are not getting the services and support they need.

On top of that, paraeducators are often unable or not allowed by their administrators to attend Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meetings to develop or review Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or 504 Plans for students with special needs, even though they are the ones who must implement part of these plans.

Research has affirmed that paraeducators have a positive impact on student reading and math achievement scores and that these impacts are particularly strong for students of color. Paraeducators also help boost overall school proficiency rates, with the strongest effects seen for students of color and schools in high-poverty districts.

Without an adequate number of paraeducators, students with special needs aren’t getting one-on-one assistance, teachers don’t have help managing classrooms and reinforcing instruction and support for English language learners is limited.

The work of paraeducators has never been more important. Students have been struggling to recover from the shortcomings of remote learning and the social-emotional impacts of the pandemic. Paraeducators who are well trained and fairly compensated can be a stable force for students, providing additional support to reinforce instruction and close the learning gaps created and exacerbated by COVID-19.

Without these vital resources, we risk having them fall even further behind instead of catching up. Our state needs to invest in support services for all public schools, so Connecticut students can receive the quality education they deserve, no matter the district they reside in.

For years, paraeducators have been pleading with the Connecticut General Assembly during every legislative session to empower us with the tools to assure our students succeed. For years, we have been put off with platitudes and hollow praise.

We thought this year would be different, but we were wrong.

Despite hundreds of paraeducators from across the state testifying at the public hearing, contacting their legislators and meeting with them in-district, the Education and Appropriations committees never even bothered to call our bill for a vote.

Once again, paraeducators, who are predominantly women and people of color, have been ignored and dismissed.

Our proposal would have addressed the issues of low pay, poor benefits and additional factors driving paraeducators away from the profession. By not acting, the Education and Appropriations committees have sent a clear and unmistakable message — they don’t think paraeducators are important.

We still have time this session to prioritize fair compensation and benefits to retain and recruit paraeducators. Investing in paraeducators is not only the right thing to do but also a wise investment in our future in order to ensure kids have what they need to thrive.

Unless our lawmakers take action, the state’s outdated spending cap will stop us from making the transformational public investments that our schools and students so desperately need to rebuild following the worst crisis in a century. At a time when Connecticut has a multibillion-dollar surplus, rigid adherence to the spending cap would be morally unacceptable.

Paraeducators and our students shouldn’t be asked to wait yet another year. It’s an investment state lawmakers can no longer afford to defer.

We can fix this problem. We just need courageous legislators who will prioritize investing in our public school students by investing in our paraeducators.

Shellye Davis is a paraeducator at Moylan Elementary School, president of the Hartford Federation of Paraeducators, and serves as co-chair of the School Paraeducator Advisory Council. Cynthia Ross-Zweig is a paraeducator in New Fairfield and serves as president of CSEA SEIU Local 2001’s Paraeducator Council. Michelle Mania is a paraeducator in Stonington and serves as president of AFSCME Council 4 Local 1996 Paraeducators of Stonington. Carl Chisem serves as president of MEUI Local 506. Craig Smith serves as president of UAW Local 376.