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Texas State Teachers Association

Teacher health insurance costs

Another thing on the list of things the Legislature needs to deal with but won’t.

Health care insurance costs for hundreds of thousands of Texas teachers and other public school employees are scheduled to go up again this fall, prompting renewed calls from educator groups for the state to pick up more of the cost of employee premiums.

The biggest increase will be experienced by those seeking basic coverage for themselves and family members. Their monthly premiums will jump $85 to a high of $1,145 a month, nearly two and a half times the national average of $472 a month. Similar coverage in the private sector would cost around $407 a month, according to a recent Bush Institute study on teacher health care costs.

“The current policy of imposing ever-greater costs on employees is not sustainable,” said Ted Melina Raab, spokesman for the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “It is putting decent, affordable coverage out of reach for growing numbers of school personnel.”

More than 280,000 public school employees – roughly three in four teachers, principals, administrators and other staff – receive health insurance through the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. The insurance program, called TRS-ActiveCare, was created to provide a health care option to working teachers whose districts did not offer their own plans.

Last Friday, the TRS board agreed to increase monthly premiums across most TRS-ActiveCare plans.

Since 2002, the state’s share of premiums has remained at $75 a month. During that same period, some educators seeking coverage for just themselves have seen their premiums increase 238 percent.

Even with the state’s monthly contribution of $75 and a $150 base contribution required from school districts, some employees still will pay upwards of $920 a month for basic family coverage.

“These increases amount to pay cuts,” Clay Robison of the Texas State Teachers Association said, noting the average teacher in the Lone Star State makes under $50,000 a year. “It really has become a burden for some of these teachers.”

This is a feature and a bug of the employer-subsidized insurance model. As we know, employers that provide health insurance plans for their employees pay a significant fraction of the cost of the premiums. This makes health insurance a lot more affordable for many people, but it means many of them have no idea how much their insurance really costs, and it means that an ever-increasing percentage of their total compensation is going to health insurance and not to, you know, salary. But that’s the world we live in, and Robison is exactly right – if the state is not upping its share of the payments, then it is like a pay cut for the teachers, since they’re bearing the full brunt of it. That’s just not right.

The solution, educator groups and districts agree, lies with the legislature. Teacher groups point to the fact that lawmakers and other state employees are covered by the Employees Retirement System of Texas health insurance plan, which pays 100 percent of monthly premiums for individuals and half of dependent coverage.

“School district employees are conveniently thought of as state employees for some things, not thought of as state employees for other things,” said Texas AFT President Linda Bridges, citing increasing performance benchmarks placed on public teachers by state officials. “We think school employees should have health care as good as the governor.”

[…]

State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, said state lawmakers have a clear role to play in reducing health care costs for teachers.

“Here is an area where clearly the state has a role to play,” said Villarreal. “Clearly, the legislature can take actions to reduce the costs for our teachers in a way that doesn’t interfere with the authority of superintendents and principals.”

State Sen. Bob Deuell, the Greenville Republican ousted by tea party candidate Bob Hall, thinks this will be a hard sell in a legislature keen on budget cuts.

“If you increase the premiums, you have essentially cut the salaries of teachers at a time when they’re not being paid enough already,” said Deuell. “I doubt very seriously the teachers are successful in getting this issue – or any other issue – through next year.”

This is where I point out that Texas’ revenue collections are going gangbusters, meaning the Legislature will have plenty of money to work with. The combination we have of unmet needs, neglected infrastructure, and available cash is one you’d think would be amenable to actually finding solutions to the problems we face. Unfortunately, that requires a level of rationality in the Legislature that doesn’t exist. Can’t do much about the Legislature but we can change direction at the top of the state. It’s the best hope we have.

How would you pay for extra school security?

Would you be willing to tax yourself for it?

Texas school districts could create special taxing districts to fund more security under a proposal unveiled Tuesday by three Houston-area lawmakers.

The Texas School District Security Act would allow school boards to hold elections on whether sales or property taxes should be raised to fund more security at public schools.

“I believe this proposal is a Texas solution that will save lives without sacrificing our freedoms,” said state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who, with Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, is developing the measure.

The three say they still are drafting the bill, but they outlined a few details at a news conference.

Sens. Williams and Whitmire submitted this op-ed that ran in Sunday’s Chron that gave details of the proposal:

Modeled after current law, which allows municipalities to vote to adopt crime control districts, the legislation would do the following:

Allow individual school districts to vote on dedicated funding for enhanced school security measures.

Allow for a dedicated sales tax (if available under the state cap), or a dedicated property tax specifically for enhanced security based on local school district voters. The revenue generated from a local option School District Security Fund would be separate from all other district funding.

Provide transparency and accountability by requiring school districts to hold public hearings on what is to be included in the Texas School District Security Act. Costs will be spelled out and voters will know the estimated amount of the dedicated property or sales tax to cover those costs before holding an election on the issue. The proposal would include a tax cap.

Require a review and renewal election of the Texas School District Security Act every five years.

A repeal petition would allow a community to abolish the Texas School District Security Act before the next renewal election.

The elected and accountable local school board also would serve as the board of the Texas School District Security Act.

On the one hand, if this is what a community wants to do, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to do it. I can’t imagine voting for such a thing, but I don’t particularly care if some other school district wants to tax itself for this purpose. I think it’s a dumb idea, but I don’t care to stand in their way of adopting it. On the other hand, there may be legal issues with the idea.

If voters approve special taxing districts to fund more school security in Texas, smaller, property-poor districts could wind up relying more on cheaper webcams and less on police officers.

According to the Equity Center, a group that represents underfunded school districts in Texas, the disparity in school funding – the subject of a lawsuit in Austin – again could play out when it comes to capturing more funds for school security by raising local sales or property taxes.

While three Houston-area lawmakers hammer out the details for such a funding option, the Equity Center took a look at how much security a one-cent property tax hike, hypothetically, could raise for a district.

The results were not surprising. Based on the Equity Center’s analysis of 2013 property tax values, Houston ISD could raise $9.5 million; Fort Bend ISD, about $2.35 million; and San Antonio ISD, $1.17 million.

Not too many police officers can be had for that.

“The wealthier will be able to afford better security,” said Ray Freeman, executive deputy director of the Equity Center.

Raise your hand if any of this surprises you. Perhaps the wealthier districts or schools could get around the inequity issue by raising the money via bake sales and whatnot. But really, if this is something worth having, then it’s something everyone should be able to have, and the way to provide that is for the state to do so. But is this something worth having?

Even wealthier districts may have a tough time selling a tax hike to voters already weary of hearing about half-cent or penny tax hikes every time a new need arises.

“It may be a separate taxing district, but it’s money that comes out of the same (voters’) pocket,” said Clay Robison, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association.

Robison likes that lawmakers are looking at something other than arming teachers. The bottom line for his group, however, is the belief that the state is “not paying its fair share” for education. “The state is still passing much of the cost to the local districts,” he said.

In addition to the TSTA, the usual suspects among the right-wing policy enforcers oppose the plan on the grounds that it allows for the possibility of one of them being taxed for something. That may make passing this bill, whenever it gets filed, more of a challenge. But seriously, surely there are better things to spend our money on, aren’t there?

Electing educators

This sounds good, but there are a couple of things missing.

More than a dozen Republicans and Democrats who have sat on school boards are running for the Texas House this year, and a backlash over spending cuts and standardized testing might help them get there.

Legislators sliced per-student spending last year, prompting schools to trim programs, increase class sizes and enact new fees. The publicity surrounding those cuts could persuade voters to change their representation in Austin, particularly if the alternative is a candidate seen as friendlier to public schools.

“We’re saying it’s time to bring in a significant number of new legislators,” said Carolyn Boyle of Texas Parent Political Action Committee, which endorses and helps candidates who it deems pro-education.

Boyle said her group plans to back an equal number of Republican and Democratic candidates in legislative races this year. A similar strategy worked in 2006, when groups representing parents, teachers and others helped at least 10 candidates defeat incumbents or win open seats in the Legislature.

It would be nice to see a list of the candidates with school board backgrounds. Other than Alief ISD Trustee Sarah Winkler (D) in HD137 and Lufkin school board president Trent Ashby (R), who is named later in the story, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I’m far too lazy to go through a hundred or so candidates’ webpage bios to try and figure it out.

Boyle said this year’s crop of candidates with school board experience is the largest she has seen since 2006.

But this year, the education community does not appear to be as unified as it was then. A candidate who appeals to the leadership of Boyle’s PAC, for instance, may not appeal to a teachers group.

“In 2006, we had a number of former school board members who were recruited at a time when we felt like public education was under attack, and it really united all of the education groups,” said Lindsay Gustafson, director of public affairs for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

But since then, Gustafson said, “We’ve found that a lot of the former school board members that we supported weren’t necessarily going to be supportive of us on issues that were divisive in the education community between administrator groups or the school boards and educator groups.”

One of those divisions, for example, was over whether the state should loosen limits on class sizes in elementary schools. More broadly, some of the candidates who received help from Parent PAC and teachers groups in earlier races voted for the cuts in per-pupil spending.

“We’re going to have to be a little bit tougher when we’re vetting candidates,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association. “A lot of folks that we felt like we helped get there didn’t seem to know us in 2011.”

This is where it gets dicey. I support ParentPAC, and have been a fan of theirs since they burst onto the scene in 2006. But the ParentPAC-backed Republicans – Diane Patrick, Jimmie Don Aycock, Dan Huberty, Four Price, among others – voted along party lines last session, which is to say they voted to slash spending on public education and voted for measures that would put more kids in classrooms and make it easier to cut teachers’ pay. If they’re not going to stand up for what’s right under those conditions – and let’s be clear, there will be more where that came from in 2013 – then what good are they? Maybe Trent Ashby, who is challenging the teabagger Marva Beck in HD57, will be an improvement over her – not that high a bar to clear, after all – and maybe so will some of the other Republican school board members running. I share Gustafson and Kouri’s concerns about how we can be sure about that. Good intentions and a good resume only go so far. I want to know what these people plan to do about fixing the structural budget deficit, what their general philosophy is about the inevitable next overhaul of the school finance system, and I want to hear them say that they will vote for restoring education funding, and against further cuts. Then I want them to be held accountable for their votes. That isn’t so much to ask, is it?

By the way, there was another Save Texas Schools rally in Austin yesterday, and it drew another good crowd.

More than 1,000 teachers, students and administrators from schools across Texas rallied Saturday at the state Capitol to decry $5.4 billion in cuts to public education and demand that lawmakers restore some of that funding — or at least not impose another round of cuts next year.

The demonstrators, who also included parents and a number of Democratic lawmakers, marched through downtown, than gathered under the Capitol’s pink dome for nearly three hours. They chanted “Save Texas Schools!” and held up signs that read: “Cuts hurt kids,” ”You get what you vote for,” and “If you can’t read this, thank your congressman.”

[…]

When crafting its two-year budget last summer, the state Legislature voted to pump an additional $1.5 billion into the account used to fund public schools, but made slightly more than that in cuts elsewhere. Lawmakers also rewrote the school funding formula to cut an additional $4 billion, despite average public school enrollment increasing by 80,000 students per year statewide.

Another $1.4 billion in cuts was made to grant programs. All told, Texas’ per-student funding fell more than $500 as compared to the last budget cycle, the first decline in per-pupil state spending since World War II.

Four lawsuits have been filed on behalf of more than 500 school districts representing more than 3 million Texas children. The suits charge that the Legislature’s plan is not equitable in how it distributes funding to school districts — but the legal fight likely won’t begin for months.

“For the first time in 60 years, the Legislature that meets in this building behind us failed to finance the current school funding law,” John Folks, superintendent of Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, told the crowd Saturday. “That shows very clearly the priority that Texas has put on public education.”

Another target at the rally was the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness or STAAR test. Students across the state will begin taking the new standardized test Monday.

“They say ‘STAAR,’ we say ‘No!'” the demonstrators chanted.

Every time I write about the devastating effect of the Republicans’ cuts to public education, I get a comment about how over the past decade spending on public education had grown faster in Texas than the growth in student enrollment. That’s true, but it doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Aside from the fact that both state and federal legislation has increased costs on school districts via various accountability measures, school districts face numerous costs that are beyond their control and which are generally not given much consideration by the Lege. You may have noticed the high price of gasoline these days. School districts and their fleet of school buses certainly have. Probably the biggest factor in busting school districts’ budgets is the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, which increased by 131 percent between 1999 and 2009. What that means is that even without adding any more students or staff, school districts would be feeling the pinch. They can’t do anything about energy prices (electricity costs more now, too; thanks, utility deregulation!) and like the city of Houston they can only do so much about health insurance costs. What do you think they’re going to do when the Lege cuts their budgets? We’re seeing it now, and we’ll see more of it in the future if we don’t change direction.

Get ready for larger class sizes

Back in 1984, one of the school reforms that resulted from the Perot Commission was a mandate that elementary school classes could have no more than 22 students in them. Many things have changed since then, but that standard has remained. Now it may be a casualty of the current budget crunch.

Any statewide change in the standard could translate into hundreds of millions of dollars for the state and districts. The 22-pupil limit is costly because every time a class in the five affected grade levels hits 23 or more students, a new class must be created with an additional teacher and classroom.

One superintendent from the Houston area said each new class costs his district $100,000 to $150,000. Superintendent David Anthony of the Cypress-Fairbanks school district also said his district added more than 70 classes last year.

The legislative committee’s recommendations could loom large as lawmakers grapple with what is expected to be a record revenue shortfall approaching $15 billion. About 60 percent of the state’s general revenue funds are spent on education.

The leaders of the special committee – Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands – said class size standards will be scrutinized. Shapiro and Eissler also chair the education committees of their respective chambers.

“If a change seems feasible, we could try it,” said Eissler, who maintained that quality teachers are much more important than class size in improving student achievement. “The research doesn’t show any particular significance to 22 to 1. You really have to get below 18 to make a difference.”

Eissler said he understands, though, why teachers would be reluctant to see any change in the standard.

[…]

Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association said that if anything, the state should take the requirement even further by “pushing class sizes down further at campuses that are low-performing or in danger of becoming low-performing.”

Teacher groups also point out that school districts can get waivers to be exempted from the 22-to-1 limit if they claim they lack classroom space or can’t find qualified teachers for additional classes. But superintendents dislike the requirement that they must notify parents whenever they seek exemptions for larger classes and in some cases must hold a public hearing.

This school year, 144 districts received waivers from the state that allowed larger classes at 544 elementary schools. The Dallas school district had waivers at 31 campuses.

In all, nearly 1,800 classrooms – with almost 40,000 students – had more than the maximum number of pupils this year.

“The Texas Education Agency never denies waivers,” said Josh Sanderson of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, insisting that school districts don’t need to have the class size rule changed because they can get exempted from it when necessary.

There’s certainly room to argue over whether or not the 22-1 ratio is the difference-maker it was when it was first adopted. As Rep. Eissler points out, the right answer if you really want to improve classroom performance would be to reduce the teacher-student ratio even further. It’s likely the case that there are more cost-effective solutions for achieving that improvement, but that is a known solution. Allowing the ratio to be increased instead as a cost-cutting measure is just another reminder of what our priorities are as a state, and a reminder (as if we needed one) that the school finance question still hasn’t been answered. We do know how to do things more cheaply, because we’ve had a lot of practice with that. We’ll be doing it again soon. Doing things better never seems to be more than a theoretical option.