The move by the Public Employees Agency Finance Board to eliminate retiree health care benefits for future state employees will make it more difficult to keep quality educators in the state of West Virginia.
All levels of education will suffer – from kindergarten to college.
Following a 7-2 vote by the PEIA board over the summer, all state employees hired after July 30, 2010 will not receive any assistance in paying for their health insurance premiums upon retirement.
While such a decision may seem insignificant to many educators entering the system now, the more observant among them – including current WVU education majors – will foresee the onerous consequences for their future.
The move will mean thousands of dollars per year to teachers upon retirement.
“(State employees) would have to pay 100 percent of their insurance premiums. In today’s dollars, they will have to pay about $1,000 a month,” said Joshua Sword, political director for the West Virginia branch of the American Federation of Teachers and voting member of the PEIA Finance Board.
“Single coverage may be a little cheaper than $1,000, but family coverage will be closer to $1,500,” he said.
For teachers with family coverage, PEIA’s decision could mean $18,000 out of their pockets each year until they become eligible for Medicare.
That projection doesn’t include health care inflation, which, according to the National Coalition on Health Care, has been about four times the rate of normal inflation over the past decade.
PEIA’s decision will help reduce debt stemming from future unfunded liabilities for state post-employment benefits, which is now at $7 billion.
“Basically, the savings would come from eventually not subsidizing employees once they retire,” said Diane Holley-Brown, of the West Virginia Department of Administration, via e-mail.
Currently, retirees pay approximately 30 percent of their health premiums in retirement – the remaining majority is provided by the state.
For teachers and other state employees, such benefits have long been used in lieu of pay increases.
According to Sword, the elimination of the benefit will affect West Virginia University and other public colleges in the state.
“Any public employee, whether they are a teacher, school service personnel, professor or classified staff member at WVU … will not receive any help to pay for their insurance premiums,” he said.
This means that any professor who takes a teaching hiatus from the University with the plan to return after 2010 will also not receive retirement health benefits.
Which begs the questions as to whether the University’s plan to hire 100 additional faculty members in the next three years will be possible.
Furthermore, will WVU education graduates, faced with higher starting salaries and better benefits in nearby states, elect to stay in this state to teach?
With starting salaries below $30,000 and no retirement health care plan, that seems unlikely.
It’s at this point that most anti-education types throw out their utterly inane argument that “teachers shouldn’t teach for the money.”
While such a claim should be met with a swift smack to the face, I’ll say this: Teachers shouldn’t only teach for the money. Unless, of course, they are bad at math. Then by all means, do it for the money.
Making teacher salaries more competitive with private industry means that more skilled and more intelligent individuals (those with higher market value) will consider teaching instead of more lucrative private sector opportunities.
By eliminating a crucial retirement benefit while offering low pay, this state will continue to employ teachers who become teachers because they were incapable of doing much else. Only, the state will hire more of those individuals.
But on that point, I digress.
This change won’t only affect teachers but social workers and police officers as well. Some children need all of these individuals during their time in school.
And it’s a shame to negatively impact these valuable resources.
The effective date of the change is also worth noting. The fact that it will only hurt future hires, whom have no political say in the current matter, makes it easier for this change to pass without any major recourse from organized labor.
And thus far, neither the American Federation of Teachers or the West Virginia Education Association have expressed interest in a strike.
Why would either when the vast majority of their current membership would be unaffected?
For the quality of education in West Virginia to meet – or, hopefully exceed – national averages, we must increase the benefits of becoming a teacher in this state.
Removing an important incentive to becoming a teacher in West Virginia makes it less attractive to teach here. And the students will suffer.
When asked whether the state will be competitive in hiring new teachers, Sword said, “It’s going to make it very difficult. We’re having a difficult time hiring math, science, special education and English teachers. You’re going to see more out-of-field teachers in the classroom, and we all know that’s not how you increase student achievement.”
Better benefits means a better pool of teaching candidates. That, coupled with higher accountability for all, will mean better education in this state.
Without it, who knows what the future will hold for education in this state.
As one Kanawha County elementary school teacher told me, “This may very well be the beginning of the end for public education in West Virginia.”
Unless the legislature or the governor step in, PEIA’s resolution will stand, and West Virginia public education will continue to be second – or third-rate.