The West Virginia teacher strike highlighted a nationwide problem.
After we published our database showing the falling or stagnant pay of teachers, we received hundreds of responses from teachers who detailed their experiences. And one common topic that emerged was an under-reported factor in the rise of teacher discontent: Yes, their salaries have been stagnating, even declining, but that’s been exacerbated by the increase in health insurance premiums.
Laurie, a high school teacher in New Jersey, wrote to Vox, “Our salaries have gone up less than 2 percent, but our contribution towards the pension and our health care benefits have gone up, so our take-home pay has decreased every year.” She wasn’t alone. Teachers from Alaska to Wisconsin shared similar stories of skyrocketing health costs that, combined with stagnant salaries, essentially gave them a pay cut over the years.
Their stories are part of a larger nationwide problem that was front and center in the West Virginia strike that ended last week. Teachers walked out of schools for nine days to protest not just stagnant salaries over recent years, but health-insurance premiums that have risen dramatically over that time.
West Virginia’s governor ultimately agreed to hold off on raising health insurance premiums, along with giving teachers a 5 percent raise. (The governor was able to meet the demand to keep premiums down because West Virginia’s teachers are covered under a statewide plan, which isn’t the case for many states.)
But teachers in other states are also dealing with this problem, contributing to why there’s been talk of teacher strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky.
The data shows teachers really are feeling the squeeze
Nationwide, public school teacher wages have been stagnant or falling.
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That’s been compounded by the rise in health insurance premiums. The nationwide trend has been one of skyrocketing health insurance premiums for everyone — but it has been especially bad for public school teachers.
In fact, in the last 10 years, teachers are on average contributing nearly $1,500 more per year towards premiums, adjusted for inflation. It ends up costing teachers significantly more than other state and local government employees.
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Most of this rise correlates with the broad trend of increasing health care costs. But another part of this story is the increasing portion of the premium teachers are now on the hook for.
Ten years ago, teachers used to contribute about 35 percent toward the premium cost for a family plan; now it’s about 38 percent. That’s a 9 percent increase, which can amount to upwards of a thousand dollars a year.
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Brandon Harrison, a 10th grade US history teacher in the Denver Public Schools, told me he used to pay $30 a month for health care premiums when he started his career as a 22-year-old in another Colorado district. He said he was earning a little shy of $40,000 a year — and now, with seven years’ experience, he’s up to about $50,000.
But his health insurance premiums at his current school have skyrocketed to $350 a month just to cover himself, a rate of increase that offsets whatever raises he gets. “I would say it feels like I’m making about the same. Teachers are not living under the poverty line, but it doesn’t feel like I’m accruing wealth,” he said.
Michelle, an elementary school teacher in Wisconsin, wrote to Vox, “Even with a cost of living increase, I’m not actually getting a raise for my additional years of service, experience, or duties. In addition, the cost of my health insurance keeps rising, usually erasing and even generating a deficit in my take-home pay.”
Denise, an Arizona high school teacher, wrote, “Our state leaders tend to give meager ‘raises’ of 1 to 2 percent every few years or so, then brag to the public about what champions they are for public education. The reality is that our healthcare premiums have gone up EVERY year by at least double those amounts, which calculates to a pay cut in the real world.”
Melissa, who teaches middle school and high school in Alaska, wrote, “Found some check stubs (remember those?) from 2003. I am bringing home $48 LESS per paycheck than today. That [is] due to increased health increases and NO WAGE INCREASES.”
Along with insurance costs, pension debt also eats into teacher take-home pay
The amount public schools have been paying teachers has dipped slightly or stayed static over the last 20 years. But what has increased dramatically over that time is the amount they pay for insurance and retirement/savings.
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This data is a bit misleading because it makes it seem like teachers are benefiting from larger contributions to their retirements.
But a 2016 analysis from Chad Aldeman of the Bellwether Education Partners shows that the money schools are spending to pay for teachers’ retirement and savings doesn’t actually go into the pockets of teachers.
“For every $10 states and districts contribute to teacher pension plans, $7 goes toward paying down past pension debt, and only $3 goes toward benefits for current teachers,” Aldeman writes. In other words, current teachers are having to pay for the pensions of an older generation, which is a wider demographic problem that goes beyond education.
Aldeman argues that the increasing costs of insurance and pension plans are eating into teachers’ take-home pay, while not providing better benefits.
This is on the minds of many teachers
When we published our database of how teacher salaries have changed in your state, we asked teachers to tell us about their experiences.
Of the hundreds of responses we got, more than one in three teachers mentioned their health insurance costs as a factor in why their take-home pay has stagnated or dropped. While ours was hardly a scientific poll, it did suggest that public school teachers are feeling the effects of increasing health care costs cutting into small raises.
Brandon Harrison, the history teacher in Denver, told me some of his former students have asked him about going into teaching. And he can’t endorse it for everybody. “If I want to have kids and give them the same life my parents gave me, I just don’t know if teaching is the best way to do that,” he said.
Tasha Grant, an Arizona elementary school teacher and single mom, couldn’t afford the monthly premium of nearly $1,000 to cover her family under a mid-level plan. For the average Arizona teacher, that would amount to about a quarter of their salary. That’s why she was paying for their health care with a health savings account and having her daughters get check-ups while visiting her ex-husband in Jamaica.
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But in 2015, she was on a road trip to take her 7-year-old daughter, Kenna, to Yosemite National Park when Kenna’s stomach started to hurt. She vomited through the night. So they went to the hospital.
Kenna had appendicitis. Because they were so far from home, doctors ended up keeping her in the hospital for six days as she recovered.
Not having insurance meant Grant owed the full amount: $70,000.
“It’s added a lot of stress to my life,” she told me, adding that she is now in the process of filing for bankruptcy.