Recently, there have been calls for improved teacher health insurance, with many people alleging the lack of teacher health insurance is the most important issue for improving education in Texas. No one disagrees that health insurance is an important issue, but there is much disagreement over proposals to use the Permanent School Fund to provide $700 million for the purchase of teacher health insurance. Diverting funds from the Permanent School Funds would be wrong for two reasons. First, the data do not suggest that there is a health insurance crisis for educators in Texas. Second, taking resources from the constitutionally created Permanent School Fund would threaten the fund’s long-term financial health.
The Texas School System at a Glance
In the 1999-2000 school year:
Texas had 1,041 school districts and 142 charter schools
17 of those did not offer health insurance to their employees
541,992 people worked in Texas school districts
Out of all the employees in Texas school districts, only 350 school district and charter school employees were not offered health coverage
Texas had almost 4 million students in public schools
District budget revenue totaled $34.9 billion (50.5 percent is local monies)
The average teacher’s salary was $38,449
Teachers’ salaries represent just under 50 percent of district staff spending
There is no health insurance crisis in the Texas School System. Only seven school districts out of 1,041 did not offer health insurance and only 10 of the 142 charter schools failed to offer employees health insurance. This affected 350 school district and charter school employees out of 541,992 employees working in school districts in Texas. In other words, less than one-tenth of 1 percent (0.06 percent) were not offered health insurance.
Research has found that the lack of health insurance is not related to the wealth of the school district; rather it is an issue of rural health care access. The problem should not be addressed through new state spending or diverting resources away from the Permanent School Fund. Rural health care access is a real problem, with many regulations making it more difficult to offer health care service in rural areas. The solution lies with market-based health care reforms that remove regulatory biases that favor the delivery of urban health care.
Raiding the Permanent School Fund is the equivalent of Congress raiding the Social Security Trust Fund. The Texas Constitution established the Permanent School Fund to provide a growing source of income for the Texas public school system. Currently, the Permanent School Fund is valued at $21 billion, and generates around $700 million per year for school children’s textbooks. If Texas votes to change the Permanent School Fund, there is a risk of losing the elected State Board of Education and the Permanent School Fund will be forever at risk of being used for other government programs.
The real problems in education are gaining control of the classroom and the fear of lawsuits. As part of the national trend of increased litigation, the number of lawsuits against schools and teachers has risen over the last decade. Two-thirds of school principals say they have seen an increase in lawsuits in the last 10 years. Almost 33 percent of high school principals have been involved in a lawsuit in the last two years, compared to 9 percent 10 years ago, according to a survey by the American Tort Reform Association.
Lawsuits against schools and teachers cost taxpayers money. Small school districts can pay $5,000 to $15,000 a year in legal services, while larger districts may have to pay nearly $100,000, according to the Education Law Association. When schools have to settle or pay lawsuits, taxpayers end up paying. Residents of one county in Oklahoma saw their property tax triple because of a judgment against their school district. In Texas, teacher unions offer their members a $6 million liability insurance policy, one of the largest in the country.
Texas should move to enact the Teacher Protection Act. This bill would strengthen the teacher’s control in the classroom and keep scarce education resources from being diverted to litigation. The Teacher Protection Act will supplement existing government immunity statutes that Gov. Bush signed into law in 1995. Current law protects school employees from civil liability when they act within the scope of their position, exercise their judgment, and do not use excessive force in the discipline of students or negligence resulting in personal injury of students.
How the Teacher Protection Act Further Helps Teachers
It is time to return our classrooms to our teachers, our playgrounds to our students, and our tax dollars to education, not litigation. The Teacher Protection Act will return discipline to the classroom and allow greater emphasis on learning by:
Providing Protection from False Reports: The Act provides sanctions against individuals who knowingly and falsely accuse educators of criminal activity. These sanctions would be in addition to currently existing claims or causes of action, such as those for libel, slander, or filing false police reports. Current law provides that a person filing a false police report commits a Class B misdemeanor.
Broadening Existing Protections: It extends immunity from civil damages to school volunteers and independent contractors directly engaged in student-related services. Current law provides that only “professional employees” of a school district, such as principals, teachers, social workers and counselors are immune from liability for civil damages.
Allowing Teachers to Discipline Students: The Act limits liability stemming from disciplinary actions against students in those circumstances in which school personnel use excessive force. Current law provides for liability where school personnel use excessive force in disciplining students, or where “negligence” in disciplining students results in bodily injury to students.
Encouraging School Personnel to Report Illegal Behavior: The Act extends immunity from liability for reporting certain illegal behavior to law enforcement authorities and school officials to include firearms-related offenses, felonies, and violent misdemeanors.
In summary, Texas should redirect its resources toward real concerns, such as restoring order in the classroom. Teachers’ health insurance is not an education problem. It is a question of rural access to health care, and is more readily addressed in the broader context of health care reform that eliminates barriers to providing rural health care access.