Monday, January 03, 2011

Fat cat teachers in Mass.:

Like most city workers, Boston teachers enjoy generous health benefits that would be the envy of many private-sector employees struggling with rising insurance costs.

But teachers can count on even more: A taxpayer-funded trust provides dental and vision coverage better than the plan for most city workers. In recent years, the trust paid some $45,000 annually for funeral expenses, hearing aids, a softball league, and other extras, according to recent tax filings.

As part of the package, taxpayers also contributed almost $1.3 million in the last school year for teachers’ legal services unrelated to the classroom, helping with wills, bankruptcy, real estate, name changes, and defense against some misdemeanor criminal charges.

The perks cost taxpayers $1,423 per teacher and $887 per paraprofessional this year, for a total of almost $8.4 million. That figure is above and beyond the $86.2 million the city will contribute for teachers’ life and health insurance, which includes below-average premiums and copayments as low as $10.

The Boston Teachers Union makes no apology for its trust fund, saying that it agreed to the benefits decades ago instead of a pay hike. Payments to the fund are set at a fixed rate per teacher, union officials said, so the expense to taxpayers is capped and will not rise unexpectedly like other health-care costs.

But with a sputtering economy, the city faces intense financial pressure as it negotiates a new contract with teachers and almost all of its other 43 unions. The School Department alone must close an estimated budget gap of $63 million and plans to shutter 10 schools and consolidate eight others to cut costs. Some observers argue that the time has come for the city to take a hard look at old collective-bargaining deals.

“It’s time to rethink health and welfare and treat teachers exactly as other employees in terms of benefits, and eliminate the expenditures for these other services,’’ said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofits. “It really ought to be an item on the list in terms of trying to negotiate changes.’’

The fund dates to 1968, when Mayor Kevin H. White sought an alternative way to compensate teachers, said former members of the contact negotiating team for both the union and management. The first year, taxpayers contributed $50 for each of the city’s 4,500 teachers, according to a 1972 decision by the Supreme Judicial Court.

“It came in lieu of salary,’’ said Richard Stutman, president of the union, which has about 6,500 members. “It is no extra than saying to someone, ‘You make 60 grand; two grand of that was extra back when you got it.’ We were offered more salary, but we took it this way. [Other unions] got larger salary increases all those years that we didn’t.’’

The union’s website describes the services as “a generous and valuable package’’ with “unique ‘extras’ to add to your total benefits.’’ School administrators have touted the plan in national recruiting efforts when they try to lure educators to Boston, union officials said.

About 80 percent of benefits paid by the fund are for dental and eye care, according to the trust’s most recent tax filings. The money allows the union to operate a vision center at its headquarters in Dorchester, employing a full-time optometrist and other staff.

But at $1,423 per teacher, the total cost of the perk is more than double what Boston pays for dental and vision for most other employees, who did not gain the coverage until 2001, according to city officials. The most popular health plan — a Harvard Pilgrim HMO — already includes very basic vision coverage, city officials said. The majority of Boston employees are covered by the state’s dental trust fund, which costs the city roughly $700 per employee each year.

If the teachers union “was covered by the same plan as other union members in the city for dental insurance . . . it would save money,’’ said John McDonough, the School Department’s chief financial officer, who has done some “ballpark analysis’’ of the costs. “It is significant.’’

Spending by the trust fund for other perks ranked much lower, with $9,849 one year for recreation, which includes a softball league and a fun run. Another year the fund spent $11,026 on funeral expenses for a benefit that will reimburse up to $1,000 for services when a teacher dies, according to the union’s website.

The almost $1.3 million that taxpayers spent for the teachers’ legal services goes to a separate trust fund. Union members use the money most commonly for real estate transactions, to designate health care proxies, and to draft wills, according to Patrick Connolly, a union trustee. The benefit cannot be used to fight felony charges, Connolly said, or for disputes in the classroom and other school-related issues. Last year the legal fund paid $672,000 in benefits for roughly 1,300 claims, according to the union and tax filings.

“When all of these things were established, it was a totally different fiscal environment in terms of pay scales,’’ said Michael G. Contompasis, a former Boston schools superintendent and chief operating officer who served on the contract bargaining committee for 15 years. “Every time you ask to get something back in lieu of something that’s been given, it always comes with a price.’’

The contract negotiated by the White administration doubled the payment in 1969, giving $100 to the fund per teacher. With each new contract over the past four decades, the taxpayers’ contribution increased, often at the same rate as pay hikes. When the city pays almost $8.4 million this year, the health and welfare fund will cost six times the original deal cut in 1968 after adjusting for inflation.

“We view it as part of the total compensation package,’’ said Connolly, the union trustee, who noted that other unions have their own benefits, such as uniform allowances. “The city has a certain amount of money for wages. If we allocate part of that to an increase in the health and welfare fund, it takes it out of the pot of money that’s there.’’


Chris Christie won’t solve public education

New Jersey governor Chris Christie has gained a lot of attention for his tough stances, including those he takes on educational issues. But Christie’s attitude is a perfect example of why politicians cannot solve the fundamental problems of government schooling.

Last spring, Christie responded to the charge that teachers aren’t being compensated for their education and experience by saying they “don’t have to do it.” This is certainly true, but let’s look behind the talking points to the economic implications of this attitude. The perception of inadequate compensation and little appreciation will dissuade people who have invested in education from entering the profession of teaching. Investment does not equal competence, but there is a correlation between focusing on an area and expertise, which in a rational system would make a teacher more valuable. Higher pay means more people competing for jobs, which allows for a better-qualified work force. Satisfaction of teachers can result in a better experience for students who have little choice but to go through the school system.

This does not mean that public education is a good thing. It is actually one of the biggest problems in America. Government schools do little to develop the character of the individual in any meaningful way. They promote the idea that important learning is done by assignment. Personal development that conflicts with the system’s forcible monopolization of the student’s time is often regarded with suspicion. Completing the process of schooling, which is based on fulfilling requirements made by increasingly distant authorities, passes for a thorough education. The reason why people learn more in college than in high school is not because high school has prepared them, but because college students are allowed more initiative, participation, and choice in their learning experience. Their ability to exercise these faculties is often in spite of the enforced irresponsibility of their high school experience.

More money will not solve the problem. As Bob Bowdon’s film “The Cartel” demonstrates, money often doesn’t make it to classroom. But that is the necessary product of a system in which it is dictated from the top-down that things are to be done in a certain way, and political domination hinders the creation of alternatives. “Quality education” to this system means more expensive infrastructure and administration. For teachers, taking initiative to deliver a great service to students often means defying the system’s rules, as John Taylor Gatto describes from personal experience as a public school teacher. Schools teach to grade level according to curriculum, not to students’ ability according to their learning styles. Interest is stifled by rigid procedure and by supervised separation from the outside world. Performance is measured in standardized test results, not in eagerness to learn or capability in applying knowledge. The school system’s rationality is that of a political program, not of a sector built on satisfying demand through consensual arrangements.

But people like Chris Christie don’t really want to solve the problem — they just want it to be a cheaper problem. They still want a system that teaches people from before they can read until they reach voting age to salute the flag, follow the bell, and satisfy the demands of authority. They just want to implement what they consider a more cost-effective program of control.

There are better solutions in liberty. The control of government institutions should be shifted away from centralized power structures to people with immediate understanding and interest. Greater choice in education and more student participation in directing the learning process should be created. It is also important to foster culture that values individual character over certified economic adequacy.

Dictates from the top down do not figure into any meaningful solution. There are difficult changes to make, but a free society is worth the effort.


To be blacklisted: The British High School courses that damage pupils' prospects

David Willetts, the universities minister, said institutions will have to publish the subjects that are viewed as substandard, as well as the ones taken by their successful applicants for every course in the UK

Schools that attempt to leap up league tables by encouraging pupils to sit ‘soft’ A-levels will see the subjects publicly blacklisted.

The Government is planning to curb the growth of subjects such as media studies, accounting and citizenship, which are being shunned by university admissions tutors.

Universities will be forced to reveal their unofficial blacklists of A-level subjects that they consider to be sub-standard and harming pupils’ chances of getting places.

Universities Minister David Willetts said institutions will be compelled to publish the subjects taken by successful applicants, and possibly the grades achieved, for every course in the country.

Mr Willetts believes the move is necessary to enable bright pupils at comprehensives to choose the A-levels that give them the best chance of getting into top universities.

He claimed that too many heads are wasting the time of the best pupils by pushing them into easier subjects to boost their school’s standing in league tables of results.

‘Although in well-informed families and some of the more academic schools this is very well understood and made available, it is not the case for everyone,’ he said.

‘Prospective students who can expect to be paying (higher tuition) fees are entitled to this information.

‘Young people need to know if there are banned subjects. It is far better this information is out there rather than secret.’

Mr Willetts said there was a ‘mishmash problem of very bad advice on GCSEs and A-levels and incentives in the old system for schools to pile up grades to maximise points without any regard to the combination of subjects’.

He said the new rule could be included in higher education legislation likely in 2012 or it would form part of the requirements to be met by universities wanting to charge fees above £6,000 under the Coalition’s funding reforms.

Most university departments are clear about the subjects they require for particular courses, such as historians having history A-level. But at present, only a few institutions are open about the A-levels they do not believe to be suitable.

Trinity College, Cambridge, publishes a list of ‘generally suitable’ science and arts A-levels. It cites 13 A-levels of ‘more limited suitability’ including business studies, film studies, sociology, psychology, law, drama/theatre studies, art and design and archaeology.

These subjects are acceptable to some of the college’s departments but not others. Twenty-four A-levels that are only suitable as fourth subjects include accounting, citizenship, dance, health and social care, music technology, photography and ICT.

Last year, Barnaby Lenon, headmaster of Harrow, accused many state schools of deceiving children by entering them for ‘worthless qualifications’.

He cited media studies, saying many schools wanted to enter students because it was easier for them to get a good grade.


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