by Brian Washington
Kristi Smith, a 26-year classroom veteran, is worried about the future of Arkansas’ teaching force. Smith, who works as a 7th grade science teacher, fears that changes to the health insurance plan for public school employees may drive good, qualified educators away from the classroom and discourage college graduates from ever entering the state’s public schools.
Beginning in December, the average public school employee will face a 48 percent increase in their health insurance premiums—which is going to dramatically reduce take home pay and make it more difficult to meet their family and household needs. Also, this new increase follows a 22 percent rate hike from last year.
“I think a lot of teachers, young teachers especially, might begin asking whether they really want to be a teacher and try to raise a family,” said Smith, who comes from a long line of educators including her mother and both her maternal grandparents. “They may get out of teaching and do something else to make more money and have better benefits.”
State lawmakers charge the root of the rate hike is a $50 million dollar shortfall in the insurance fund. However, Smith and other educators across the state point out that the plan for public school employees mirrors the one covering state workers and state lawmakers, who have only experienced modest increases within the last several years.For example, those educators enrolled in what’s known as “The Family Plan” will see an 81 percent cost increase in 2014 compared to what they were paying in 2012. However, insurance costs for state employees and Ark. legislators have remained basically the same.
“I guess we just need an explanation as to why it’s different,” said Smith. “Even though the coverage is exactly the same and the benefits are exactly the same, our rate is higher than it is for the state employees.”
On Saturday, Educators from across the state came together to urge Governor Mike Beebe to hold a special session to come up with a bipartisan solution. Their efforts were successful, and the session began yesterday and will go into next week. The call includes bills that will, if approved:
- Provide $43 million in one-time surplus funds to reduce the 2014 rate increase from 50 percent to 10 percent.
- Redirect future savings from the Educational Facilities Partnership Fund to provide long-term relief to the plan.
- Modify the requirements for Teacher Professional Development to provide long-term relief to the plan.
- Establish a task force to study and revise the Public School Employees Plan for future sustainability.
- Clarify the distribution of State revenue generated by the Uniform Rate of Tax, as advised by the Arkansas Supreme Court, and direct some of that revenue to the Educational Facilities Partnership Fund.
Meanwhile, the Arkansas Education Association has been conducting workshops and phone banks to educate and mobilize teachers and education support professionals to contact their lawmakers to let them know how this issue affects them and their families and urge them to vote for the proposed bills.
“I definitely think it’s important for educators to call or email,” said Smith. “It’s important for them to tell their personal story to put pressure on the people in elected office and let them know we are not happy.”