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After we launched our database showing teacher pay or compensation, we received hundreds of responses from teachers describing their experiences. And a common issue that emerges is an unspoken version of the progress of teacher dissatisfaction: Yes, their salaries are stable, or even reduced, but this is outweighed by the increase in health insurance costs.
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Laurie, a high school teacher in New Jersey, wrote, "Our wages are less than 2 percent, but our pension contribution and health benefits have increased, so our take-home pay has decreased every year. "Teachers from Alaska to Wisconsin share similar stories of rising health care costs that, combined with stagnant wages, have left them with reduced pay over the years.
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Their case is one of the major national issues that were front and center in the West Virginia strike that ended last week. Teachers walked out of schools for nine days to protest not only wages that have stagnated in recent years but health insurance costs that have increased during that time.
The governor of West Virginia has finally agreed to put a moratorium on raising health insurance premiums, as well as giving teachers a 5 percent raise. (The governor was able to do what was needed to keep wages down because West Virginia teachers are protected under the state plan, which is not the case for many states.)
But teachers in other states are also facing the problem, sparking talk of teacher strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky.
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That's compounded by rising health insurance costs. The state's policies have been some of the best for health insurance for the public — but worse for public school teachers.
In fact, compared to a decade ago, teachers are paying an average of $1,500 more per year in wages, adjusted for inflation. He ended up valuing teachers more than public and district employees.
Most of these increases are consistent with a broader trend of increasing health care costs. But another part of the story is the increasing number of first-time teachers who are on the hook for it.
Ten years ago, teachers typically contributed 35 percent to the premium cost of family planning; now it is about 38 percent. That's an increase of 9 percent, which can reach $1,000 a year.
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Brandon Harrison, a 10th grade American history teacher in Denver Public Schools, told me he spent $30 a month on health benefits when he started his career as a 22-year-old in a Colorado community. He said it was less than $40,000 a year - and now, with seven years' experience, it's about $50,000.
But her school health insurance payments have risen to $350 a month to cover it, an additional rate that will wipe out any income she receives. "I would say that I feel like I'm doing the same thing. Teachers don't live in poverty, but it's not that I'm accumulating wealth," he said.
Michelle, an elementary school teacher in Wisconsin, wrote, “Even with the living wage supplement, I don't get paid extra for years of service, experience, or services. In addition, the cost of my health insurance continues to rise, often canceling and even causing a shortfall in my take-home pay. "
Denise, an Arizona high school teacher, wrote: "Our public leaders often give me a small 'raise' of 1 to 2 percent every few years or so, then brag to everyone about what champions of public education. who they are. The fact is that our health care taxes have risen every year by almost twice that amount, which accounts for the real world cost reduction. "
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Melissa, who teaches at an elementary and middle school in Alaska, writes, "I've seen some check boxes (remember these?) from 2003. I was bringing home $48 less in paychecks than today is gone. It is [due to] increased health and no additional benefits. "
Public school fees that have been paying teachers have fallen slightly or stayed the same over the past 20 years. But what increased significantly during that time was the amount they paid for insurance and retirement/savings.
This data is misleading because it makes it appear that teachers benefit from large contributions to their pensions.
But a 2016 study by Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners showed that the money schools use to pay for teacher retirement and retention money is not actually going into teachers' pockets.
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"For every $10 state and local governments contribute to teacher pension plans, $7 goes to pay past pension debt, and only $3 goes to benefits for current teachers," Aldeman wrote. In other words, today's teachers have to pay the pensions of the older generation, which is a humanitarian problem beyond education.
Aldeman argued that rising insurance costs and pension plans are eating into teachers' pay, but not providing better benefits.
When we released our database of how teacher salaries have changed by state, we asked teachers to tell us about their experiences.
Of the hundreds of responses we received, more than one in three teachers cited their health insurance payments as the reason why take-home pay has stayed or dropped. While ours is not scientific research, it does show that public school teachers are feeling the effects of increased health care costs being cut into small increases.
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Brandon Harrison, a history teacher in Denver, told me that some of his former students have asked him about going into teaching. And he said he couldn't support everyone. "If I want to have children and give them the same life that my parents gave me, I don't know if writing is the best way to do that," he said.
Tasha Grant, an Arizona elementary school teacher and single mother, can't pay the nearly $1,000 in stipends to cover her family under the federal program. For the average Arizona teacher, that's about a quarter of their salary. That's why she paid for their health care through a health care account and had her daughters tested while visiting her ex-husband in Jamaica.
But in 2015, she was on a trip with her seven-year-old daughter, Kenna, to Yosemite National Park when Kenna's stomach started hurting. He vomited all night. So they went to the hospital.
Kenna has appendicitis. Because they were far from home, the doctors put him in the hospital for six days when he recovered.
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"It adds a lot of stress to my life," he told me, adding that he was in the process of filing for bankruptcy.
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Teachers are government employees and often receive pension and insurance benefits (medical, dental, vision) that cover themselves and their families. But are these blessings too many? Do the benefits make up for the low cost?
"I wouldn't say generous, it's better than nothing," said Tyson Gardin of Fort Mill, SC, a health coach. "It's not something I can complain about because there are people who have nothing."
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"You get a national plan but it comes from your check, it's not something free," he added.
Recent teacher rallies and strikes in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia have focused on teacher pay and benefits.
Most public school teachers are eligible for defined benefit plans where the state guarantees guaranteed pay for life upon retirement based on length of service and earnings history. Generally, the employer and employee make contributions and the state is responsible for investing in the pension fund.
A defined benefit pension can be generous for teachers who have put in many years of service as the reward grows over time.
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But many public pension plans are underfunded and pension reform initiatives have tried to address this issue by reforming the plans. These changes include reducing benefits for new employees, increasing employee contributions and reducing the cost of transportation plans for retirees.
"Pensions have been moved to the individual," said the president of the American Association of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, as teachers are required to increase contributions to their retirement plan.
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