Teachers today at Capitol: We need to be part of education debate

Today, Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Choices or TRAGIC will gather at the State Capitol. Here is what teacher and TRAGIC spokesman John Palmer plans to say:

By John Palmer

Good morning.  Thank you to everyone for coming out this morning.  My name is John Palmer, I am a band director, and I am with the group Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Choices.

caption arrowCaption
January 9, 2013 - Atlanta, Ga: The statue Miss Freedom sits atop of the gold dome of the Georgia State Capitol at dusk Wednesday evening in Atlanta, Ga., January 9, 2013. The Georgia Capitol completed in 1889, is only days away from the start of the 2013 Legislative Session in the House and Senate Chambers Monday January 14, 2013. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM The governor is scheduled to sign 10 education bills Thursday, but campus carry is not on the list. (AJC Photo.)

Credit: Maureen Downey

January 9, 2013 - Atlanta, Ga: The statue Miss Freedom sits atop of the gold dome of the Georgia State Capitol at dusk Wednesday evening in Atlanta, Ga., January 9, 2013. The Georgia Capitol completed in 1889, is only days away from the start of the 2013 Legislative Session in the House and Senate Chambers Monday January 14, 2013. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM The governor is scheduled to sign 10 education bills Thursday, but campus carry is not on the list. (AJC Photo.)

Credit: Maureen Downey

caption arrowCaption
January 9, 2013 - Atlanta, Ga: The statue Miss Freedom sits atop of the gold dome of the Georgia State Capitol at dusk Wednesday evening in Atlanta, Ga., January 9, 2013. The Georgia Capitol completed in 1889, is only days away from the start of the 2013 Legislative Session in the House and Senate Chambers Monday January 14, 2013. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM The governor is scheduled to sign 10 education bills Thursday, but campus carry is not on the list. (AJC Photo.)

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

TRAGIC was founded two years ago by Ashley Cline as a reaction to the terrible insurance changes forced on teachers, state employees, and retirees with little warning from the Department of Community Health and the State Health Benefit Plan.  Ashley wishes she could be here today, but health issues have kept her at home.

TRAGIC began as a grassroots organization around Ashley’s kitchen table, and it remains a true grassroots organization today.  The last time we gathered here on the grounds of the state Capitol, we were around 4,000 members.  We are now just a few members shy of 24,000.

We have expanded from our original mission: we are still working for affordable insurance choices for ALL state employees, education employees, and retirees; but we have also defended against attacks on the Teacher’s Retirement System, and we are working to educate teachers, parents, and the general public about the attacks on our public education system.

Today we will hear from speakers who will share their stories and explain the effects of current insurance and education policies.  Our purpose today is to educate you about these issues so that you can have conversations with your legislators.

First, I would like to speak with you about the State Health Benefit Plan. Our State Health Benefit Plan is in the last year of a three-year contract with Blue Cross/Blue Shield.  While the DCH added HMO options last year with United Health Care and Kaiser Permanente, there will be major changes coming to the SHBP in 2017 as new contracts enter the bidding process.

This summer, at the request of the governor and the General Assembly, the State Health Benefit commissioned a report from AON Hewitt to study why the State Health Benefit Plan’s costs were higher than comparable government employee health plans.  This report confirmed that teachers, state employees, and retirees in Georgia’s State Health Benefit Plan pay 15% more for our premiums, 39 percent more in out-of-pocket costs, and 29 percent in total costs than the mean of comparable state plans.

While the report offered 10 options for reducing costs without reducing the value of health benefits, the only one that was not already being used by the DCH that seemed feasible was for the state to increase their contributions to the State Health Benefit Plan.  This solution seems HIGHLY unlikely since the state just shifted a greater cost burden to local districts for non-certified employees.

Another section of the report seemed especially troubling: the report called for moving retirees to the individual Medicare exchange market.  The Board of Regents just moved their retirees to Medicare exchanges, so it seems possible that the State Health Benefit Plan would consider this move.

With a new plan design and the threat of Medicare exchanges looming, several groups such as GSRA, PAGE, GREA, TRAGIC and a number of other employee and educator organizations are again seeking passage of legislation to create a State Health Benefit Plan consumer advisory council under the Department of Community Health. The state would incur no cost by adopting this legislation.

We seek to make more transparent the process of considering plan components and to ensure a dialogue between the DCH and affected State Health Benefit Plan customers prior to adopting plan changes. Such a tool would be valuable to DCH for achieving and smoothly implementing workable plans. It will help DCH make better decisions and help avoid potential controversy.

We seek legislation similar to HB 240 from last session, and there is a possibility that one or more resolutions may be offered to urge DCH to create an advisory council. We hope when you speak to your legislators today you share your thoughts on creating such an advisory council.

For those of us who pay attention to what goes on down here, it can seem like the attacks are endless.

Since 2003 our public schools have had to function with $8.6 BILLION less that what was called for by the Quality Basic Education Act.  Just from 2010 -2014 our schools suffered over $1 BILLION a year in austerity cuts.  When the governor claims to have increased the education budget more than any other governor in decades, he fails to mention how much money our districts have lost during his administration.  In fact, he commissioned an education reform commission to change the formula.

Our districts haven’t just been hit with austerity cuts, they have also had to take on increased insurance costs.  The state eliminated the insurance subsidy for non-certified staff in 2016, and increased the amount school districts will have to pay for 2017.  As a result, our local school districts have seen a 220 percent increase in insurance costs: from $218 a month to $846 a month for each educational support professional employed. We are talking about our bus drivers who transport our children every day; our cafeteria workers who cook for our children; our secretaries who answer the phones and are the first person any visitor sees in our schools.  These personnel are ESSENTIAL to our schools, and they aren’t paid very well.  In fact, many keep these jobs simply for the insurance.

Earlier this year Gov. Deal gave a partial restoration of the austerity cuts -- enough to average around 3 percent for every teacher in the state - and insisted that the districts use that money for teacher raises, yet he then turned around and raised the local district contributions for educational support professionals.  If the Governor truly wanted teachers to receive raises, he could have added money to the state base pay -- the state salary schedule hasn’t been adjusted since 2008 -- but he didn’t.  This is just a funding shell game.

In 2009 and 2010, the Legislature allowed state agencies to stop paying into the State Health Benefit Plan; in essence, they used $500 - $700 million in surplus funds to help balance the state’s budget during the Great Recession. As a result, state employees and teachers saw their health insurance premiums rise 10 percent annually from 2010 - 2013, and we all remember the disastrous plan that was introduced in 2014.

During these dark years of austerity cuts, furloughs, and rising healthcare costs, a narrative was developing in certain circles here at the Capitol.  This narrative stated teachers were to blame for our failing schools, yet never mentioned the austerity cuts that crippled our local school districts.

Groundwork was laid to ensure that this narrative became accepted.  Despite falling from 26th to 35th nationally in per-pupil spending over a decade, our policy makers established a Career and College Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) in 2012 to measure and grade our schools.

In 2013, House Bill 244 established a teacher evaluation system that based 50 percent of a teacher’s yearly evaluation and 70 percent of an administrator’s yearly evaluation on “student achievement,” or test scores.  In courses that were not subject to standardized tests or end of course exams, Student Learning Objectives were designed.  These SLOs were not used as diagnostic tools to help teachers better tailor instruction for students, they were not used to measure student progress, they were only used to test the teacher.

I am a band director.  I have had bands perform on National and Regional stages; my students just performed as a model band at our state music convention last month.  Yet 50 percent of my evaluation is based on SLOs -- tests that I helped design.  Our SLO can only test a student’s ability to read music, since it has to be given as a multiple choice test on the computer.  I had a student in 6th grade who entered my class this year with no prior knowledge of how to play the trumpet -- but he had played piano for 4 years.  He scored a 100 percent on his SLO pre-test.  He won’t be able to score any higher at the end of the year, so even though he is becoming a fantastic trumpet player, as far as the state in concerned, I have failed this student because he will show no growth in my class.

There are countless stories we could tell here that mirror this testing absurdity.  Special education teachers whose students are expected to perform at grade level; teachers whose scores are being compared to previous years and “expected growth models;” schools who have cut back or eliminated music, art, and physical education classes to focus on test preparation. When you make test scores 70 percent of an administrator’s evaluation testing WILL become the focus of schools.

Educators were also left out of the discussions in the Governor’s Education Reform Commission.  There were no active classroom teachers on the ERC, but plenty of charter school advocates.  Even when Pam Williams, chair of the Teacher Recruitment, Retention, and Compensation Subcommittee did talk with some focus groups, the teacher’s input was ignored.  Even though teachers stated overemphasis on testing and state mandates as their highest concerns, the subcommittee recommended changes to teacher compensation that included pay for performance and an end to compensation for advanced degrees, an examination of the Teacher Retirement System, and (my personal favorite), a media campaign to remind current teachers why they teach and encourage young people to join the teaching ranks.

Fortunately, some legislators HAVE been listening to teachers.  Just last week two bills were introduced in the Senate that would reduce the amount of testing and limit the use of those tests in teacher evaluations.

Senate Bill 355 was authored by Sen. William Ligon of Brunswick, and sponsored by 11 other Republican senators.  This bill, entitled the “Student/Teacher Protection Act” addresses many of our concerns on over testing and the use of these tests in teacher and administrator evaluations.  It would reduce the percentage testing could be used in teacher evaluations to 10 percent and in administrator evaluations to 40 percent.  It would also place restrictions on the types of tests that would be given, reduce the amount of tests given, set attendance minimums before students’ scores would count toward a teacher’s evaluation, provide for alternate assessments for special education students, and allow protections for students and families who chose to opt out of standardized testing.  This bill was written by an educator, a parent, and a legislator.

Senate Bill 364 was introduced last week by Sen. Lindsey Tippins of Marietta and sponsored by 12 other Republicans and 2 Democrats.  Entitled the “Quality Basic Education Act,” it would reduce the percentage used in teacher evaluations to 30 percent, reduce the percentage of test scores used in administrator evaluations to 40 percent, establish minimum attendance requirements before student scores would count towards evaluations, remove the SLO requirement, reduce the number of classroom observations for teachers who have demonstrated years of exemplary performance, and provide for alternate assessments for special education students.

SB 364 was written with the input of over 20 teachers from across our state: from the north and the south; rural, urban, and suburban districts; elementary, middle, and high school educators; and special education and regular education teachers.  It gives greater flexibility to local districts, and it has bipartisan support.  There will be a hearing tomorrow at 1:00 pm in the Coverdale Legislative Office Building.  If you can come back down tomorrow for the hearing, please do so!  Even if you can’t make it down, at least make sure your Senator hears from you today about this bill.

Neither bill is perfect, and neither bill will fix the many problems facing our public schools.  They are steps in the right direction, however, and we must support these legislators in their efforts to help reduce the emphasis on testing in our schools.

As you head across the street to the Capitol today, I hope you will find your legislator and share your thoughts about these testing bills, the issues facing the State Health Benefit Plan, and any other concerns you have about the state’s support (or lack of support) for public education. You are their constituents, you are the people who sent them down here to represent you.

Teachers don’t like to get political, but we have been left with no choice.  It is our duty to stand up for our profession, for our schools, for our children. There are many people under that Dome who are paid to advance an agenda or a piece of legislation.  You are not one of those people; you are a constituent and a voter.

If the House or the Senate is in session when you enter, you just have to step up to the Page desk and fill out a request form for your legislator.  They will excuse themselves to step out to meet you.  If they are not in session, you should go by their office and introduce yourself.  Be friendly and polite to the secretary and ask to see the Representative or Senator.  If they are not available, ask if you can get 10 minutes sometime today.  After you meet them, make a follow-up call later this week and then send a reminder email before any big vote.

You are a teacher, who sees children everyday, who knows the struggles of the children in your classroom and the struggles of your school and your district.  YOU are the education expert who knows far more about the issues facing our schools today than some consultant who only spent three years in a classroom.

My name is John Palmer, and I am more than just a band director: I am an advocate for my own children and for the children that I teach; I am a supporter of public schools; and I am the spokesperson for TRAGIC. I encourage YOU to be more than just a teacher or a state employee.  Be BOLD and make a difference.

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