Tuesday, April 25, 2006

WEAC: Spending Money on Education Bad for Education

I read with amusement Xoff's post deriding the "65% Solution," a proposed bill that would require school districts to spend 65% of their funds on in-class activities. According to First Class Education, a national group pushing for similar legislation around the U.S., only 60% of public school funds are spent in the classroom in Wisconsin. Enacting the legislation would move about $250 million more into the classroom without raising taxes, according to the bill's authors.

Democrats apparently think this is a terrible idea. Never mind that the bill could lead to better pay and benefits for school teachers. But I absolutely cannot wait for the public debate where Democrats try to convince taxpayers that 65 cents of every dollar they spend on schools is way too much to spend in the classroom. I am craving a Jim Doyle press release in which he tells voters that Wisconsin needs to keep spending 40% of its total school budgets on things that have nothing to do with educating kids.

More importantly, WEAC, the state's largest teacher's union, has registered its opposition to the bill (SB668). Now why would an organization that is supposed to improve the pay and benefits for teachers oppose a bill that would improve the pay and benefits for teachers?

Clearly, WEAC has made a determination that it is better to beg for more money rather than slice up the current pie differently. As long as they have been in existence, they simply have equated more total school funding with student achievement (although despite revenue caps on school districts being in place over a decade, Wisconsin is still tops in the nation in ACT scores). In this regard, WEAC actually has some solidarity with the School Boards Association and School Administrators Association, with whom they are often at odds.

However, this alliance has one downside - it spectacularly demonstrates that WEAC really doesn't have the interests of its members at heart. All that nonsense about representing teachers is a complete fraud. WEAC is all about getting Democrats elected, and when a Republican-proposed bill comes along that will help their membership, they feign contempt for it, when their own members will be the ultimate losers. Passing the 65% solution now would be a big talking point for Republicans heading into the election, which WEAC couldn't stomach, despite the benefits to its membership.

Remember when Republicans were pushing for teachers to have the option of entering the state health insurance pool? This budget provision would have had the effect of providing identical health insurance to teachers at a much lower cost to school districts, which could have pumped that money right back into higher teacher salaries or hiring more teachers (as current law requires they do). You may recall that 78% of school districts in the state are insured by WEA Trust, the private insurance arm of WEAC, on a no-competitive bidding basis.

Statistics show that health insurance premiums for contracts negotiated by the state's Department of Employee Trust Funds rose at a significantly lower level than those premiums offered by WEA Trust (10.5% to 15%). In 2002, WEA Trust raised insurance premiums on its own members by 20.1% from 2001, while other state employers only saw a 12.4% increase. 2003 was even worse, with WEA Trust raising rates 30.4% on their members, while other state employee premiums increased by only 10%.

So why would WEAC be raising insurance rates on their own members? They simply wanted to force a crisis on the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO) and really put the screws to school districts to lobby for its repeal. Since school districts that offer a QEO to their teachers by law cannot change their health insurance, WEA Trust has a monopoly on these districts and can raise rates on them as much as they want without fear of losing their business.

Of course, WEAC lobbied heavily against opening school district health insurance up to competitive bidding, and they got what they wanted in a Jim Doyle budget veto. So school districts will continue to pay more than they have to for health insurance to protect the union, thereby leaving less money for teacher salaries (incidentally, this pits older teachers that rely heavily on the health benefits against younger, healthier, teachers who would prefer the higher pay. Of course, it is usually the older teachers that are union activists).

Anyone who thinks WEAC is anything more than a partisan campaign machine is kidding themselves. When it comes down to partisanship versus helping their own members, they'll throw teachers under the bus. Keep that in mind as they continue to oppose spending more money in the classroom.