Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Mike Petrilli and the Fat Police

By Eduwonkette — May 29, 2008 2 min read

Every April 1, the Education Gadfly releases its very funny April Fools issue, a collection of mock education-news stories that generates double-takes in readers’ offices around the country. Apparently April Fools Day falls a little late this year.

According to this week’s issue of the Education Gadfly, teachers unions are not only making teachers lazy, but also fat. In what Mike Petrilli dubs the “teacher obesity epidemic,” schools collectively spend more on health insurance costs to treat overweight teachers than the state of Maine spends on its entire K-12 system in a year.

The problem, Petrilli claims, lies in collective bargaining agreements with “overly-generous” health benefits. Petrilli’s prescription for fixing the teacher obesity epidemic is simple: “stop giving health care away for free.” When teachers are “oblivious to the cost of medical care,” he writes, they have little incentive to monitor their own health, leaving it to taxpayers to pick up the tab. Other industries ask employees to bear some of the burden of their healthcare costs through higher premiums, suggesting that incentives there are more properly aligned.

There are more things wrong with Petrilli’s analysis than can be covered here, so let’s just tackle a few:

1) Teachers’ health care is not free. Even if all teachers pay a zero out-of-pocket premium for health care services, this does not imply “free” health care.

Economics 101 demonstrates that employees will bear at least some of the burden of higher employer health costs through lower wages. (In other words, more attractive health benefits will be partly offset by lower wages.) To use Petrilli’s tax analogy, buyers are still affected by a tax—through higher prices—even when that tax is formally paid by the seller.

2) Teachers’ health care benefits are not that generous compared to other industries. Petrilli cites the BLS statistic that “schools spend about 16 cents on health insurance for every dollar they pay in salaries,” which he and others suggest is much higher than in other sectors. But this statistic ignores the fact that teachers are usually paid over 9 months, not 12. If insurance is provided year-round, but salaries cover 9 months, of course this ratio is going to be high.

3) In education or elsewhere, few health plans provide proper incentives to maintain a healthy weight. Yes, private firms make their employees pay higher premiums, but few health plans directly tie employee out-of-pocket costs to obesity (or smoking, drinking, or other negative health behaviors). In other words, a higher premium alone does not create an incentive to eat right.

There may or may not be a “teacher obesity epidemic” in the United States. But one would hope that a rigorous analysis of teacher weight would address factors such as differing work conditions in teaching, as opposed to simply taking yet another swipe at teachers and their unions. (And are teachers less overweight in non-collective bargaining states?!)

Teacher obesity aside, Mike and the Fat Police can sleep easy with the knowledge that my avatar’s proportions are a healthy 34-24-34.

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