A perfect storm in the making

It seems this is the year for generating more heat than light in the state’s education sector, and as usual our children are the sacrificial lambs. As if the turmoil over Act 46 weren’t enough, the state teachers’ union and its champions in the legislature are muddying the waters even further by getting in the governor’s face over a plan he says would save up to $26 million per year in education costs, at a time when Vermont is fighting down fiscal desperation, should the Trump budget be passed even in part by Congress.

“The teachers,” led by the Vermont National Education Association, claim that Scott’s plan would strip the union’s “right” to negotiate health benefits separately with each local school board. Letters to the editor try to make the case that the quality of education will suffer if “local control” over teacher contract negotiations is taken away.

But whose control is the union talking about? Is it school boards’ control over their own budgets? Or is it the union that uses the mantra of “local control” to squeeze a better deal out of the less prosperous, small-fry school boards? At present, school employee benefits are negotiated with at least 60 individual school boards, many of which are about to disappear under Act 46 anyway.

On June 12, Scott’s office issued a press release with FAQs, presented clearly and calmly, on his education savings proposal. It’s worth a read. (http://governor.vermont.gov/press-release/education-savings-proposal)

The issue starts with changes in the statewide education health plan, in the works anyway, to hopefully avoid the looming 40 percent excise tax that Obamacare would impose on high-cost – “Cadillac” – employer-sponsored health plans, beginning in 2020.

Meanwhile, the escalating cost of health coverage for school employees – not books and supplies – is known to be greatest force behind the rising cost of education in Vermont, especially as enrollments dwindle.

Shuffling money around within the legislative budget is not the answer. Scott’s plan cuts to the chase and calls for “a statewide health plan where school employee unions would collectively bargain with the State for the health benefit only” – all other negotiations would stay local, and it would not abridge the right to strike.

Teachers would personally pony up 20 percent of the premium cost (let’s keep in mind that many teachers are financially much more comfortable than many of the households whose children they teach). All school employees would enjoy the same level of benefits no matter where they were employed. This results in both cost predictability to the state and also increased employees’ freedom of movement from district to district. It also relieves the local school boards of the time, expense and stress of hashing out health benefits with the union, allowing boards to use their time more productively for education. The Vermont School Boards Association has collaborated on Scott’s plan.

Finally, Scott says that his plan could realize a savings of $75 million per year, of which $50 million would be returned to school employees in the form of health savings accounts, to help defray their out-of-pocket costs. The rest (the famous $26 million figure) would be added to the Education Fund.

What’s for the average Vermont taxpayer not to like?

Meanwhile, Democrats seem to have forgotten all about education. They have been accustomed to a single-party system in Montpelier, resulting in a runaway state budget that over-relied on rosy predictions, then pulled down federal dollars, raided other funds for quick fixes, and levied regressive taxes. Do they oppose Scott so strenuously merely because of the Republican label? They are yelling bloody murder, but we don’t see anyone bleeding.

Scott’s plan is creative, sensible and farsighted. Let’s stop holding the next generation hostage to the past, and let teachers do what they’re here to do: teach.

 

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