Unwieldy Health Costs Often Stand Between Teachers and Fatter Paychecks

As teacher strikes flared this spring in more than half a dozen states, from West Virginia to Arizona, protesters bemoaned stagnant salaries, overcrowded classrooms and a lack of basic supplies like textbooks and computers.

But often missing from hand-scrawled placards and fiery speeches was an issue that has contributed greatly to the financial woes of America’s schools: skyrocketing health care costs.

Many teachers, like other public employees, have traditionally accepted a trade-off: In exchange for relatively low salaries, they could expect relatively generous benefits, including pensions and low- or no-cost health premiums.

But in an era of $100,000-a-year drugs and government budget cuts, school districts are struggling to find the money to keep up their end of the bargain, forced to take away from classroom funding and even modest, cost-of-living raises. Many cash-strapped school boards, cities and legislatures view health care benefits as an unpredictable budget-buster.

Meanwhile, teachers are being asked to fork over more of their paychecks to keep their health coverage, even as budget cuts have impelled them to use their own money for classroom supplies and to crowdsource money to buy computers.

In Jersey City, NJ, where health care expenses have gone up an average of 10 percent annually as district funding has remained flat, teachers staged a one-day strike in March to protest rising costs.

But with an underfunded school system and a $110 million health care bill that is expected to increase another 13 percent this year, teachers and officials accepted a mutually imperfect solution that included changes to their health care plan to end the strike and avoid cuts that would have gutted local schools.

“We’re talking about 300 teachers being laid off to be able to afford our health care bill,” said Sudhan Thomas, president of the Jersey City Public Schools’ board of education.

While the teacher strikes have ebbed with the school year, deals brokered to end…

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