Rep. Sean Scanlon wants CT to keep trying to send rebate dollars to families
State Comptroller Sean Scanlon File Photo

State officials on Tuesday announced a one-time $5 million subsidy that will help thousands of paraeducators across the state pay health insurance bills this year that are not covered under local school district health plans.

Gov. Ned Lamont and Comptroller Sean Scanlon, along with legislators, union leaders and school officials held a press conference in the auditorium of the Sarah J. Rawson Elementary School in Hartford to discuss what the money will mean to more than 4,000 paraeducators across the state.

The Paraeducator Healthcare Subsidy Program was created through negotiations between legislative leadership and labor unions during the 2023 legislative session and was included in the governor’s budget as a one-time financial boost to help chronically underpaid paraeducators cover insurance costs. 

Paraeducators in Connecticut have an annual salary of about $27,000. School officials have said they have a hard time filling the positions or lose people when they find they can make more money in other fields.  

To determine who would be eligible for the funding, Scanlon’s office contacted every school board in the state to get a list of paraeducators employed by each. The survey revealed there are about 12,000 paraeducators across Connecticut and 11,064 of them are offered some form of health care by their school districts.

Scanlon said half of them decide not to take that health insurance because they can find better health insurance somewhere else. But for the half using the school district’s health plan, about 73% of them are in high deductible plans.

“As anybody who has a high level plan knows the cost of those plans is going up and up and up to the point where it’s barely even usable when it comes to health insurance anymore because you have to pay so much out of pocket that you can’t even afford to actually get to the point where you have insurance,” Scanlon said.

Scanlon said the subsidy program will use the $5 million to pay up to 74 percent of the paraeducators’ annual out-of-pocket health care costs. He estimates about 4,166 paraeducators will be getting some funding.

“If a paraeducator has a $2,000 deductible, and they get a $1,000 contribution from their board of education, that means that their responsibility is $1,000,” Scanlon said. “That’s a lot of money for somebody making what a paraeducator unfortunately makes in many of these school districts. We would be paying a stipend of $740 to cover the cost of those costs.”

Scanlon added if someone’s deductible is $5,000, which is the average annual deductible in Connecticut, and “they are getting nothing from the local board of education, which is the case in a lot of towns in this state under this program, the stipend would be $3,700 to help them cover those costs.”

Officials hope that by helping to cover health insurance costs they will not only assist paraeducators in the short-term but also keep them from leaving the profession.

“Paraeducators are just like teachers, the backbone of the educational world in the lives of the kids in Hartford and all across the state,” said Matt Ritter, speaker of the House of Representatives. “But the reality is, it’s getting harder to be a paraeducator. It’s harder to go to work every day and give those hugs to kids and show them love when at the same time you can’t afford your health benefits or your pay is so low that you’re working a second or third job.

“This will give thousands of paraeducators help in paying their health care bills so that the same individuals in my daughter’s classroom in the Noah Webster School — that she gives a hug to every day and that she treats like a teacher — we’re giving them a chance to have a better life by paying for their health care.”

The program is a one-time appropriation. The legislature has formed a task force to study what long-term solutions may be available to solve the issue permanently, including through the Access Health system or Husky, the state’s Medicaid program.

For Shellye Davis, a long-time paraeducator at the Expeditionary Learning Academy in Hartford as well as the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO and president of the Hartford Federation of Paraeducators, the funding is vital to keeping people on the job.

“The stipend for paras to help reduce our health care costs is a long overdue step toward improving recruitment and retention,” Davis said. “By itself it won’t solve the crisis but combined with additional resources to lift paraeducators out of poverty it will absolutely make a resounding difference all across the state.”

But Davis warned there is still a “crisis in our classrooms” with teacher and paraeducator shortages all across the state, particularly in special education.

“The crisis I’m talking about is the learning crisis impacting students across Connecticut. There are a number of factors behind it but a major driver is the statewide school staffing shortage. The majority is in special education, and that makes it difficult, if not impossible to deliver what kids need,” Davis said.

For Rep. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, the visit to Sarah Rawson brought back memories to when he taught at the school — his first teaching experience.

“This is the building where I learned how to educate children and it couldn’t have been possible unless I had a trusted adult in my classroom with me at that time, a paraprofessional,” McCrory said.

McCrory added that the legislature made progress by creating the stipend but more is needed.

“We did something in this piece of legislation that will help but there’s a lot more we need to do,” McCrory said. “A lot more we need to continue to do to invest in those adults who put the time and energy and efforts at low pay to make sure our children are comfortable in a school setting and can be successful.”

Dave does in-depth investigative reporting for CT Mirror. His work focuses on government accountability including financial oversight, abuse of power, corruption, safety monitoring, and compliance with law. Before joining CT Mirror Altimari spent 23 years at the Hartford Courant breaking some of the state’s biggest, most impactful investigative stories.