Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sticker shock on teachers' insurance

[This article by Brandon Dutcher was originally published in August 2001.]

There are many different reasons why educators fork over hundreds of dollars annually to belong to the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest school employee labor union. But certainly one of the chief reasons is to get the $1 million in civil liability coverage the union provides.

"Individual NEA members have long griped about the high dues, the bureaucracy, and the aggressive political nature of their union," Bob Jones reported in the March 24 issue of World magazine. "So why do they stay? In a word: Insurance. In a litigious society, students and parents are increasingly unwilling to respect the authority of teachers. An educator who disciplines a child or gives a bad grade on a final exam can quickly find herself in the middle of an expensive, time-consuming lawsuit. The NEA touts its liability insurance as one of the prime benefits of membership, and thousands of teachers dutifully write their checks each year primarily because they want that protection."

Susan Battershell did. "I joined because we were told in college that we would be very foolish, in today's society, not to have liability insurance in case a parent decided to sue us," says Mrs. Battershell, an 11-year teacher now teaching at Anadarko Middle School.

Donna Smith, a two-time Altus Public Schools Teacher of the Year, was an NEA member for some 20 years. "My experience was that, with the exception of officers, most teachers joined because of the protective insurance," she says.

In short, as Ringo Starr might put it, "You got to pay your dues just in case the momma sues, and you know it don't come easy."

Indeed it don't. In Oklahoma, total union dues (national, state and local) are around $375 annually, and will increase this year.

But how much of that dues money actually goes to pay the insurance premium?

Tracey Bailey, the 1993 National Teacher of the Year, is director of special projects for the Association of American Educators, a non-union professional organization. A popular conference speaker, Mr. Bailey says he has asked hundreds of teachers what portion of their union dues they think goes towards buying insurance. "Almost without exception they'll say, 'At least half of it goes for legal and liability insurance and half of it goes for those political things -- I really don't agree with those but I need the legal and liability.'"

Mr. Bailey estimates "90 to 95 percent of teachers have bought into this myth" that a good chunk of their dues goes to purchase the insurance. But according to a rate filing memorandum submitted by the Horace Mann Insurance Company and on file at the Oklahoma Insurance Department, in the upcoming school year the educators employment liability policy will cost the union no more than $4.29 for each covered teacher.

Not exactly the kind of thing the union wants shouted from the housetops.

Okay, so the insurance is cheap. But doesn't the union provide other benefits to its members? Sure it does, and teachers for whom those are important can perhaps justify paying hundreds of dollars a year in dues. The point is simply this: most teachers probably would be shocked to learn their insurance costs only $4.29. Those who joined the labor union solely or primarily for the insurance might want to consider an alternative, such as the nonunion Association of Professional Oklahoma Educators.

Mrs. Battershell, for example, was offended by the union's left-wing politics and wanted to be a part of "a professional, not a political, organization." So she dumped the union and joined APOE after a couple of colleagues showed her APOE's dues were about half the union dues -- while the liability coverage was double. APOE also provides legal assistance, staff development workshops, and other benefits.

Why are APOE's dues so much cheaper? For one thing, their overhead is considerably lower than the union's. Keep in mind, "most of the dollars deducted from teachers' paychecks are inserted into the paychecks of someone else," education writer Mike Antonucci points out.

For instance, according to the OEA's 1999 tax return, president Carolyn Crowder's salary is $91,167. Add to that fringe benefits totaling $27,349 and expenses (travel, vehicle, and telephone) of $22,370.

OEA executive director David DuVall's salary is $72,000; his fringe benefits total $30,396 and his expenses total $16,537.

And of course it costs money to get those big-government politicians elected.

"As a responsible citizen, I would prefer to make my own decisions about which candidates, issues, PACs, etc. to support with my money," Mrs. Battershell says. "And I would like my professional organization to be up front with me about the cost of liability insurance."

If teachers know how cheap that insurance really is, and that they have an alternative to the union, many may choose to give themselves a pay raise right now.

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