Teachers rally for insurance; Coalition is seeking state-funded program

By Terrence Stutz and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Page 17A

A coalition of teacher groups and leading education associations – backed by several legislators – announced Monday they will push for a state-funded health insurance program for teachers and other school employees next year.

The effort comes as the cost of health insurance for teachers continues to soar across the state, creating financial strains for local school districts and pinching the pocketbooks of thousands of teachers.

Many teachers say the raises they received from the Legislature last year were swallowed up by increased health coverage premiums.

“If there was ever a time for the Texas Legislature to address this issue, now is the time,” said Robby Collins, a former Dallas school official and chairman of the Better Texas Coalition.

“Texas has a budget surplus this year, we face a critical shortage of teachers during the next decade, and a recent stopgap effort by the Teacher Retirement System for retired school employees will run short of funds by September 2001,” he said, calling the situation a “grave crisis” for school districts and the state.

Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt, D-Dallas, filed legislation Monday – the first day to pre-file bills for the 2001 legislative session – that would establish a state-funded health insurance program for all public school employees. By negotiating with insurers as a group, proponents say, a state agency could get better insurance rates than any individual district could.

“There is unanimous agreement across this state that we have a problem,” Ms. Ehrhardt said. “Our over 1,000 school districts have a patchwork of health insurance plans. Often they require employees to pay most, if not all of the premiums – sometimes as much as $1,400 a month.”

Forty school districts have no health insurance program at all.

The Dallas school district faced angry teachers earlier this month after they discovered that their health insurance premiums rose suddenly and with little notice after an administrator’s error. The district eventually renegotiated the contract and agreed to pick up more of the tab.

Ms. Ehrhardt said the state’s situation is forcing many teachers out of the profession and steering prospective teachers to other jobs.

Her bill would give public school employees the same health insurance benefits as employees of state government and public universities. Retirees, who are now covered under a statewide plan but must pay roughly half the cost, also would be covered under Ms. Ehrhardt’s bill.

The Dallas lawmaker was unable to estimate the cost for her bill. But some supporters of the program said it would cost the state as much as $4 billion in the next two years. Currently, school districts that provide health insurance are paying $1 billion to $1.4 billion a year in premiums.

With an estimated surplus of nearly $4 billion in the next two-year state budget, the health insurance plan would consume the lion’s share of the surplus if lawmakers were to adopt it. The proposal will compete with requests from several state agencies for a portion of the surplus funds.

School officials held news conferences in more than 10 cities across the state Monday, including Dallas and Fort Worth, to drive home their intention to make this the top issue of the legislative session. They said that dealing with rising health costs distracts from their primary task of educating children.

“Twenty-seven years ago, when I became a math teacher, I didn’t expect to spend a majority of my time dealing with health insurance,” Castleberry ISD Superintendent Gary Jones said at the Fort Worth rally.

As officials in Austin have imposed more statewide standards on local schools – including a stricter testing regime and accountability standards – some educators said the state should be willing to take up some of the financial burden. One sign held up at the Fort Worth rally read: “Texas expects the best – school employees expect the same.”

“When it’s something they want, like testing, it’s all top-down,” said Joy Murray, a fourth-grade teacher at Clarke Elementary in Fort Worth. “But when it’s something to our benefit, it’s ‘local control.'”

Dr. Ray Freeman, superintendent of the tiny Itasca school district in Hill County, called health insurance for teachers “the Number 1 issue facing Texas this year.” Earlier this year, the district’s insurance company announced it was ending its contract with the district.

Dr. Freeman, who is also a past president of the Texas Association of Rural Schools, said the district has been hunting for a replacement, but high prices have made the process difficult. Many insurers aren’t interested in small districts like Itasca, which has only about 50 teachers. One insurer quoted a rate of more than $450 a month per individual employee, double the cost the district had been paying. To insure an employee’s family, the cost would rise to more than $1,200 a month, almost triple the previous rate.

“It’s a matter of defining priorities,” said Fort Worth Superintendent Thomas Tocco. He said Fort Worth spends about $16.5 million a year on employee health insurance, a sum that “could go a long way toward taking care of our technology needs.”

Ms. Ehrhardt filed similar legislation in the 1999 session, but it failed as three of the four state teacher organizations put their emphasis on a pay raise for their members rather than health insurance.

This time, the four teacher groups are backing the health insurance bill. They include the Texas State Teachers Association, Texas Federation of Teachers, Association of Texas Professional Educators and Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

“State-paid health insurance is our Number 1 legislative priority this year,” Texas Federation of Teachers president John Cole said at the Capitol.

Other members of the coalition include associations representing principals, urban school districts – including Dallas – rural schools and retired teachers.

Mr. Collins said business and medical groups will join the lobbying effort.

Several lawmakers were present at the press conference, including Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, who said the state cannot afford to ignore the health insurance problem any longer.