Update on Experience Ratings: LD300

A letter to the editor in the May 14, 2013 edition of the Portland Press Herald led me to check out a bill introduced by Rep. Henry Beck (D-Waterville ), LD 300.

The bill Summary says: “This bill provides that an insurer providing health insurance covering employees of a school administrative unit is not required to provide loss information concerning those employees if requested by the school administrative unit.”

In other words, the bill would negate the effects of LD 1326 from last session, An Act to Allow School Administrative Units to Seek Less Expensive Health Insurance Alternatives. Oh, ho, I thought – a way out of the conundrum into which the MEA Benefits Trust put its members when it released its 2013-14 premiums based on  experience ratings (aka loss information).

Not so fast.  LD300 has now been carried over to second half of the Maine Legislature’s 126th biennial session. I do not know why.

It appears on the surface that both the Maine Education Association and its health insurance trust, the MEA Benefits Trust, would have benefited from this bill. So, despite Steve Robinson‘s (of the Maine Heritage Policy Center and The MaineWire) blithe Twitter characterization of the MEA as the Maine Democratic Party‘s “union overlords” in another context, the organization may not have had enough influence to get the bill passed.


If the MEA wanted the bill carried over then I suppose his point may be well-taken. Why the MEA would want to have done so, though, since it fought the original LD1326 so hard, both in the Maine Legislature and in the courts, is unknown.

At this point, then, unless LD 300 passes quickly through the 2nd session and is enacted as emergency legislation, the effects of MEABT choosing to implement its own experience ratings will have been felt by school systems and local Associations across the state for two years.

In a simple example, School Systems A and B, each of which pays the full health insurance premiums for its 50 teachers, could have widely different budget concerns 2 years out. If School System A was assigned an experience rating of 0% for both years, but School System B had 13%, then School System B would pay almost $100,000 more than School System A by the end of 2015 just for its teachers, let alone its support staff and administrators.

MEABT rates 2 yrs

How those costs will impact funding and budgeting decisions at both the state and local levels next year is yet to be seen.

ADDENDUM (5/21/13): It occurred to me that I did not emphasize strongly enough one primary fact in all this: School System A and School System B are paying very different prices for THE SAME product on behalf of their teachers.  Not “similar” products. Not “almost identical” products.  Exactly the same product from the same provider.

It would be as if 2 people walked into Wal-Mart and each picked out the same style, size and quality sweater.  When the first goes to the register, the price rings up as $20.  When the second goes through, the price is $22.60 (13% more).  The second customer storms up to the Customer Service desk and asks, “What the heck?” The Wal-Mart employee can only say, “Some people get charged one price and other people another. It’s company policy.”   Except in the case of the MEABT experience-rated premiums, it’s the customers’ own Trust that is creating the disparity, not some anonymous global retail giant.


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Health Insurance Conundrum for Maine’s Teachers

3 years ago, I was employed by the Maine Education Association as one of 16 UniServ Directors (union rep) in the state. We all had basic bargaining strategies we passed along to local Associations, but an important one was: “Don’t create different levels of benefits for employees within a bargaining unit”.   For example, don’t permit new teachers to be singled out for a lower level of benefits than veteran employees. As health insurance costs rose over the years, School Boards/Committees would often propose to have all teachers hired after a certain date be offered only individual health insurance with no Board/Committee contribution to family costs. Local Associations were strongly encouraged to resist such proposals.

I left the organization in November, 2010. During the next legislative session, LD 1326, An Act to Allow School Administrative Units to Seek Less Expensive Health Insurance Alternatives, was approved by the Maine Legislature and signed on June 21, 2011 by then-new Governor Paul LePage.   A key section of the new law was:

Sec. 3. 20-A MRSA §1001, sub-§14, ¶D  is enacted to read:


D.  In order to facilitate the competitive bidding process in procuring health insurance for a school administrative unit’s employees under this subsection, a school administrative unit may request from the insurer providing health insurance coverage to its employees and retirees loss information [experience]  concerning all of that school administrative unit’s employees and retirees and their dependents covered under the school administrative unit’s policy or contract pursuant to Title 24-A, section 2803-A.

The MEA Benefits Trust (an insurer that provides health insurance through Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield to the MEA and its members) spent about a year fighting that provision in court, but ultimately lost and decided against any further legal action in November, 2012.  The Trust would be legally obligated to release experience ratings school system–by-school system when asked to do so.

Move forward to April, 2013: the MEABT announced that the 2013-14 insurance rates would be based on experience (0, 3, 6, 8, 11 or 13% depending on the school system). Huh?  OK, clearly they had to release experience information by law, but use that information themselves to set rates? That was unexpected and contrary to the bargaining advice MEA had been offering for years.

There may well be some perfectly logical explanation as to why MEABT chose to base health insurance premiums on experience information, but I don’t know what it is.  However, what I can do is extrapolate a worst case scenario as what happens a few years down the road:

Pick any two neighboring school systems (System A and System B) of 30 teachers each.

ö         Assume the average teacher salary three years from now is identical and each teacher earns the average: $55,000

ö         Assume each school system pays the full cost of the teacher’s health insurance on the ChoicePlus plan.

ö         Assume each teacher  is paying for the additional cost of family health insurance on the ChoicePlus plan.

ö         Assume that each school system’s experience rating remains the same for the next three years.

  • System A: 0%
  • System B: 13%

Both teachers will be paying a lot for the family’s health insurance ($12,500 annually for Teacher A or $42,500 in annual compensation; $20,000 per year for Teacher B or $35,000 in annual compensation.)  But the teacher in system B will be paying about $8,000 more out-of-pocket for her family’s health insurance than the teacher in system A. That’s $656 per month Teacher B won’t be getting in her paycheck that Teacher A will. See: 2013-14 MEABT Rates2

From the school systems’ perspectives 3 years down the road, School System B will on the hook for an additional $135,000 over System A ($4,500 annually for each of its 30 teachers).

What the policy implications at the state level will be as health insurance changes when the federal Affordable Care Act comes online is an unknown.  Additional health insurance providers may well come into the marketplace over that period, too as the law intends.  But the Essential Programs and Services Funding model for Maine schools just had one more wrench thrown into the works.

One has to think the employment decisions made by teachers will become significantly different over that three-year period if the scenario plays out as I have described it.  These decisions will not be made because one school system offers a better level of benefit than another, but because the teachers’ own insurance trust chose to treat different school systems disparately based the experience ratings they fought so hard against.

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A-F Grading System Can’t “Meet the Standard”

Back in February, the Governor announced a new (well, based on other states’ models, but new for Maine) grading system of Maine’s schools.  The system will be based on the what-I-thought-were-the-now-antiquated A-through-F grades just as the Proficiency-Based Diploma (20-A MRSA 4722-A) comes into being in the state.

Despite the fact that I’m not a fan of proficiency-based education, I took a look at the Maine Department of Education‘s Glossary of Terms Related to Proficiency-Based Learning just to remind myself what the most basic terms meant for Maine schools.

  • Proficiency: Targeted level of achievement in a standard or learning goal. “Demonstrating proficiency” is synonymous with “demonstrating mastery” or “meeting the standard.”
  • Standard: A description of skill or knowledge deemed essential.

I then compared those two terms to what the Governor said in his April 20 weekly radio address would be some of the standards by which Maine’s schools would be graded:

  • student achievement in reading and math (only those two apparently, not the rest of the system of Learning Results as required by Maine law)
  • growth in achievement
  • performance and growth of the bottom 25 percent of students (for elementary schools)
  • graduation rate (for high schools)

I imagine there will be significant discussion over the value and reliability of any or all of those standards, plus any others that may someday be revealed.

But no matter how one feels about any of this, the first question really should be: Did Maine’s schools KNOW what the standards would be in order to be able to meet them?  If not – and I believe this is the case – the proposed practice of grading schools violates the administration’s own definition of proficiency.

I hope the Maine Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs weighs in on this travesty soon.  They may not be able to countermand a gubernatorial executive order, but they can certainly make it clear to the Governor and the Commissioner that the Legislature’s interest in proficiency-based education is more than just words.

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Not Banned at the Maine DoE – ?

I’m not a fan of rhetorical questions, but this situation seems to warrant one. Yesterday I posted here that a comment I tried to make in response to the Maine Department of Education’s article, Preparing for A-F grading system, was banned. Afterwards, I received an email from the DoE spokesman, David Connerty-Marin, saying that I simply had not followed their posting policy. So, I tried again. As of 8:45 this morning, the comment had still not appeared online.

What was the policy I failed to follow? Using both my first and last names, not NancyEH (the computer fills that in by default). OK, that’s reasonable. And certainly my mistake.

However, in my defense, I will admit to a certain complacency on my part in expecting websites to be programmed to catch such user errors. The policy requires two names? Easy solution: provide two boxes. A bit more complicated, but common: a “Did you forget?” message.

Let’s see what the day brings.

UPDATE (4/10/13): My comment has been posted and I’ve received 2 emails and 1 Direct Message on Twitter from Mr. Connerty-Marin.

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Still Banned at Maine DoE

It’s hard to believe that one middle-aged woman 250 miles from Augusta can cause such consternation at the Maine Department of Education that any comments she tries to make at their website are promptly eliminated.

On Sunday, I stumbled across an article at the Maine DoE online Newsroom: Preparing for A-F grading system. Knowing that the proficiency-based approach being touted by the Department has little tolerance for such a system, I took a few minutes to read it. Grading kids? Nope. Grading Maine schools.

So, I typed a quick comment:
Almost any ranking system is simply shorthand for a broader set of parameters; most of us understand both the larger process and the shorthand relatively well. Therefore, if an A – F system is appropriate for grading schools (assuming we know and agree upon the standards by which they are being ranked), it is difficult to understand how it is not similarly appropriate for grading students in this day of “proficiency-based” education.

I entered my comment with my own name (mistakenly doing so twice because I had to log in and nothing showed up the first time). Once the system had processed the comments (both of them), they were shown with a note “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” [I have a screenshot to prove it]  As of today, my words aren’t there. There are five (5) comments – all from men, interestingly – some of which say basically the same thing I did. Those men are allowed to say their piece; I’m not. What’s so scary, I wonder?


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Stopping the Minimum Teacher Salary

According the Maine Department of Education’s website, followed by an article in the Bangor Daily News today, the State of Maine has decided to stop subsidizing the minimum teacher salary. The minimum teacher salary has been $30,000 in Maine for many years ($27,000 in 2005-06; $30,000 since then) [20-A MRSA 13405, 13406]. However, the state has been reimbursing school systems that did not pay the minimum.

The effect of this policy has been to keep down starting salaries in many smaller, rural school systems around the state.

For example, a typical salary scale in 2004-05 might have looked like this:

0 25,000
1 26,000
2 27,000
3 28,000
4 29,000
5 30,000
6 31,000
7 32,000
8 33,000
9 34,000
10 35,000
11 36,000
12 37,000
13 38,000
14 39,000
15 40,000
16 41,500
18 42,000
20 42,500
25 43,000

So, in 2004-05, a new teacher (Teacher A, no experience) would have been hired at $25,000 (Step 0 on the negotiated scale).

In 2005-06, another new teacher (Teacher B) could still have been hired at $25,000, but paid $27,000. The state would have reimbursed the school $2,000 for Teacher B. Even Teacher A, hired the year previously, would have garnered the school system a subsidy because Teacher A (now at Step 1) was still $1,000 below the mandatory minimum.

A year later, another new teacher (Teacher C) might still have been hired at the same $25,000, but paid $30,000. The school system contributed $25,000 and the state the other $5,000. The two previously hired teachers were each also paid the $30,000; the school system got reimbursed $3,000 for Teacher A, $4,000 for Teacher B. Those subsidies totaled $12,000 that the school system did not have to spend out of their own budgets, but helped them pay newer teachers almost as much as their colleagues who had many years’ experience.

There was almost no incentive to move the scale below Step 5 to anything other than where it stood. Any money that became available during the years since 2005 would have been applied to the higher steps on the scale. New teachers became stuck at $30,000 until they reached Step 6 – seven years into their careers!

It is long past time for the State of Maine to stop the minimum teacher salary subsidies. However, the Essential Programs and Services funding formula also needs to change in order to make sure smaller, rural school systems can actually afford to pay their teachers what they are worth: the same as professional educators in other parts of the state.

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Defending Public Education

Lisa Cooley, a Maine school board member and blogger, has been posting for a while now about how public education needs an overhaul.  Her most recent post, found at the Innovative Educator, is entitled I Am No Longer Willing to Let Traditional Schooling Hurt Our Children. I believe she equates traditional education with public education and vice versa.  Her post has received a lot of positive comments; since I disagree, I’m using this venue to cross-post my own responses.

Cooley: If we agree that schools are built on a foundation that is shaky at best, what would happen instead if we did things differently?

I almost completely disagree. The purpose of public education is not to cater to individual kids’ [parents’] needs or wants, but to create an informed and literate populace. That means that there needs to be a general understanding of what’s important for people to know: literature, writing, math, science, etc. Allowing individual students to determine their own learning plans based on what they [think they] care about [for now] is not going to help.

The statement that schools alone are hurting students is itself harmful. Schools and teachers do not go out of their way to create problems for students. Students come to school with their own sets of problems that then play out again throughout the day without any help from the school itself. As several researchers have recently pointed out, the primary problem for American schools is poverty.

As Mr. Bartan says, some kids have the opportunities to pursue their passions. Others don’t. Schools have to level the playing field as much as possible with limited resources (financial, personnel, time and otherwise) available to them. It’s illogical to demand the complete reform/transform/overhaul of traditional education based on anecdote.

The responses to the above were almost completely negative. I was accused of not understanding that schools are oppressive places designed simply for an out-dated industrial model. So, here’s what I wrote:

I understand the thinking behind “the education system was designed for the industrial age and that doesn’t fit our current times”. I just believe it’s erroneous. 

Starting with Maria Montessori and moving through John Holt and others, many educators have theorized that public education needs an overhaul because it doesn’t meet the individual needs of kids. On the other hand, public education hasn’t changed a lot probably because meeting the individual needs of individual kids is time-consuming and expensive as evidenced by special education (PL 94-142 passed in 1972) which is based on the Individual Education Plan (IEP). Each identified special education student is guaranteed a “free and appropriate (not perfect) public education” (FAPE) through whatever accommodations and modifications are required in his/her case. It’s a valuable but costly process that has created a specialized bureaucracy in schools and towns across the country.

I am retired and currently working as an Educational Technician with at-risk kids. These students do not have the type of home life that provides opportunities for pursuing their passions and interests (except video games and hanging around town). They don’t even have the type of home life that encourages reading or cooking (so as to learn fractions, for example) or building (geometry) with Mom and Dad or grandparents. 

One purpose of public education is to level that playing field as much as possible. That’s a reason Maine provides laptops for all middle-school students. Another purpose is to provide a foundation in basic skills and knowledge. Kids are kids, no matter what era they live in. They need guidance. They need help. They aren’t in a position – yet – make their own decisions because the don’t have the experience to know what they need.

The idea of a free day is lovely, but schools run 9-10 months of the year. Show me how this works for an entire year. And then another entire year. I doubt you can. And even if you could, the resources required to make it happen would be astounding.

Blaming schools for society’s ills is pointless. 6 hours per day (give or take) for 175 days (or so) is all schools see of kids. The rest of the time is spent at home or out-and-about. Kids who are on the edge of homelessness, or searching for a sexual identity, or living with grandparents because Mom and Dad are in drug rehab are unlikely candidates for appropriately pursuing their passions – in or out of a school building. Help schools, stop blaming them.

I know that my lone voice won’t make a lot of difference in defending traditional public education but it’s important for someone to try: there’s a lot of good in public education today and it does not require a complete reinvention. Tweaking, yes.  Truly heeding the voices of teachers and other educators, yes.  Acknowledging the needs of kids, yes. Letting them run the show? No.


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