Teaching Profession

Liability-Insurance Bill Irks Georgia Teachers’ Union

By Linda Jacobson — March 30, 2005 3 min read
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The Georgia Association of Educators is not impressed with a state legislative proposal to provide liability insurance to teachers—a plan that some say would take away one of the most attractive benefits of union membership.

Written by Rep. Earl Ehrhart, the Republican who chairs the House rules committee, the plan has already been approved by the full House, 110-59. It would offer liability coverage, paid for by the state, to all 130,000 certified personnel who work for public school systems.

The insurance, which is already available to those who teach at the college level in the state, would protect teachers when they have to defend themselves legally against accusations made by a student or parent.

But Merchuria Chase Williams, the president of the 40,000-member GAE, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said the state’s insurance would do nothing to protect teachers when they are involved in grievances with their employers.

“There is still a need for protection that is more in-depth,” she said, in reference to what the state’s offering would cover. “Even student-teachers need to have liability insurance with an organization like GAE.”

But Mr. Ehrhart said that no liability insurance covers “job actions,” and that the legal representation the union now provides to its members if they are accused of wrongdoing, say, by a principal, is a service separate from the insurance coverage.

Fighting Words

Mr. Ehrhart’s plan, which would cost about $5 per person, is an amendment to Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue’s “master teacher” bill. That legislation passed the Senate last month, without the liability-insurance provision. The bill may yet have to go to a House-Senate conference committee before ending up on the governor’s desk.

The amendment has received support from conservatives in the state.

Among them is Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jim Wooten. He lambasted the GAE in one of his columns, calling education unions “a major obstacle to most any reform that does not result in more jobs or higher pay.”

Many teachers join the union, he wrote, only to receive the liability protection.

“What Ehrhart did was diminish the attractiveness of organized labor, a group that fights bitterly to block most legislation that conservatives would consider reform,” Mr. Wooten wrote.

Those words have angered some GAE members almost as much as the amendment itself. Susie Garmon, a teacher in the 3,400-student Lumpkin County district, wrote in a response to the newspaper that the “true intent of Rep. Earl Ehrhart’s bill is to try to convince teachers that they do not need a professional association looking out for them.” She added that she hopes her colleagues throughout Georgia “are not gullible enough to think that the true intent of such legislation is to protect good teachers from parents gone wild.”

Duplicate Policies?

But Rep. Ehrhart counters that his reason for drafting the amendment was to extend coverage to the 30,000 teachers in the state who don’t belong to either the GAE or the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a 60,000-member nonunion group.

Florida, which competes with Georgia for teachers, he added, already provides such coverage.

The lawmaker called the accusation that he is trying to undermine the union’s efforts to attract teachers “foolish.”

“I’m not in the business of worrying about the recruitment of GAE or PAGE,” Mr. Ehrhart said. “It begs the question, ‘Is that all they provide to their members?’ ”

Tim Callahan, a spokesman for PAGE, agreed that the legislation is an effort to “take a poke at professional associations.”

But, he added, the coverage proposed by the legislature merely duplicates the liability insurance that most districts buy on their own.“It’s a nonbenefit benefit.”

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