In addition to overcrowded classrooms, an underfunded district, and a staffing crisis that looms on the horizon for New York City’s public schools, teachers may soon be worrying about their very own health. As health insurance premiums continue to climb nationally, teachers in the state are being asked to contribute more to their benefit plans—and they’re feeling the strain of higher premiums on education budgets in other ways, too: in congested classrooms and in supply rooms empty of the basic paper, pencils, and books they need to get through the school day.
For teachers, a somewhat unenviable salary structure has always been balanced by a comprehensive benefits package: “a trade-off,” according to Dennis Tompkins, a spokesperson for New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). “But now one of the things we’re seeing is districts asking teachers to contribute more” to their health plans, he says. Tompkins also says the union’s mostly female membership has been asked to seek family health coverage through their husbands because of rising insurance costs.
“It sounds sexist, but they’re asking husbands to cover family insurance,” says Tompkins.
National employer-sponsored health care premiums rose by double digits for the fourth year in a row in 2004, according to a recent survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust. On average, premiums increased by 11.2 percent, rising at five times the rate of inflation (2.3 percent) and worker’s earnings (2.2 percent). Since 2000, family premiums have increased by 59 percent.
“Skyrocketing drug and health care costs continue to get passed along to us,” reports New York Teacher, the online newsletter for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).
The demands of teachers’ unions are invariably slanted by the priorities of veteran and retired teachers. Tenured teachers are often willing to take on an extra student in their classroom or accept cuts in teacher training in order to maintain their benefits. In labor negotiations between the Municipal Labor Committee (MLC) and the city last year, the unions withstood efforts to have members contribute more toward their insurance premiums, but conceded to higher co-payments for regular office visits and for specialists.
“Health benefits must not be allowed to erode,” said UFT president and MLC chair Randi Weingarten at the opening of contract negotiations in September 2003. “In the five years that I’ve been union president, I’ve noticed a sharply increased concern among members about maintaining health benefits.”
According to the American Federation of Teachers, the bargaining landscape is being poisoned by the rising cost of health insurance. “Healthcare costs have made a big dent in constructive deal making,” reads the lead article in the December 2003/January 2004 issue of American Teacher, the group’s newsletter.
“In every negotiation, the cost of benefits continues to be the 800-pound gorilla at the table,” says AFT research and information services department director Jewell Gould.
According to the field services staff at NYSUT, health benefits are now among the top three issues at the bargaining table for teachers’ unions. “It’s far more difficult to negotiate a contract today than it was a few years ago,” NYSUT president Tom Hobart said in a recent press release. “Rising prescription drug prices, higher health insurance, transportation and pension costs, along with late budgets and the state’s failure to adequately fund public schools, are putting the squeeze on school boards.”
School boards are then forced to put the squeeze on teachers. As other issues such as transportation costs drain school districts of their resources, the hike in health insurance premiums contributes to the strain. The result is often increased class sizes, cuts in programming and further actions that seem to erode education reform.
Parents and teachers regularly pick up the Department of Education’s “slack,” according to a 2004 “State of the Schools” report from Insideschools, an independent online guide to New York City public schools and a program of the non-profit Advocates for Children. Among the anecdotal evidence included in the recent report is the story of a father in Park Slope who received a letter from his child’s teacher asking for a vacuum cleaner. The teacher then planned to use the vacuum cleaner to clean the classroom herself.
In 2003, the New York City Council Investigation Division (CID) investigated how much teachers were contributing to their classrooms out of pocket to fill gaps in city programming. The Teacher’s Choice Program (TCP) allocates 200 dollars annually to teachers for classroom supplies bought out-of-pocket between August 1 and March 15. With assistance from UFT staff members, CID investigators found that during the 2002-2003 school year, 41 percent of teachers spent more than 250 dollars out of pocket on school supplies, up from 36 percent in 2001-2002. Teachers’ average out-of-pocket expenses were 426.68 dollars in 2002-2003.
“200 dollars does not go a long way,” says one Bronx high school English teacher, who as a first-year teacher in 2003 says her classroom went six weeks without textbooks and most of the year without construction paper, scissors or a working photocopier.
While the supply closets of most teachers seem empty, high school classrooms throughout the city are overcrowded with students. According to the UFT, 2004 was “one of worst school openings for [New York City] high schools in recent memory because there were far more students than seats.” The union filed more than 11,000 oversized-class grievances in October 2004.
Insideschools calls the city’s high schools “chronically overcrowded,” and the New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO) reported in September 2004 that the city’s high schools were operating at 108 percent of capacity for the 2002-2003 school year. While this number is down from 112 percent in 1999-2000, the improvement is generally attributed to decline in student enrollment, a trend for high schools since the 1997-1998 school year and a function of birth rates and migration out of the city.
Demographic projections prepared by the Grier Partnership for the Department of Education in 2003 suggest a blip in this trend with short-term growth through the 2005-2006 school year before enrollment reverses again through 2013. Under the education department’s capital plan for 2005-2009, the city expects to add 41,300 seats for middle school and high school students through the construction of new schools, additions, or temporary mini-schools which can hold up to 10 classrooms, according to the IBO. But funding for the plan “remains a major risk; leaving some of the new high school seats at risk,” the September 2004 report reads.
At the time, the city assumed much of the funding for the capital plan would come from the state through the settlement of a recent lawsuit waged by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. A court-appointed panel overseeing the lawsuit—brought on the grounds that the city’s children were being deprived of the adequate education guaranteed by the State Constitution—found in December that the state owed New York City $5.6 billion in aid and an additional $9.2 billion in new classrooms and other facilities. State Supreme Court Justice Leland De Grasse was expected to issue a ruling on the school-aid case by the end of January.
While the mandated state aid would infuse the city’s school system with funding, it would not solve the long-term problem of rising health care costs and their burden on schools. According to the IBO, the DOE spent $702 million for the fiscal year 2003-2004 on health benefits for teachers and classified employees—approximately 5 percent of the budget for about 130,000 employees total. This was up from $664.3 million for the fiscal year 2002-2003, and is expected to continue to rise.
“The cost of health care continues to increase dramatically, and I realize that these higher costs have an impact on you and your family,” Mayor Bloomberg acknowledged in a letter introducing the city’s 2004 Employee Benefits Program. He cheerfully added, “I am proud to note that most City employees will continue to have several health plan options available to them, at the most economical rates available. Now it is up to you; I wish you and your family years of good health.”