Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Still no budget . . .
The impasse in Olympia on the budget is becoming more of a concern for me as I fear it isn’t the budget that is creating the inability to reach agreement. If not, there are major issues that impact education and education employees that could be at the heart of the problem. One of those is charter schools and a second is the fight over school employees health plans. Either or both of these could become part of a package that emerges from these closed door sessions as did the teacher/principal evaluation changes in the earlier compromise. I don’t know if one or both are part of the six issues Governor Gregoire identified in this article as the cause of the impasse, but I am concerned that they are part of the conversations.

There certainly has been plenty in the Seattle Times over the last few days on both of these issues. Charter schools is the topic of this letter to the Times by Robert Enlow president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and Jonathan Bechtle CEO of the Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Olympia. In it they argue for charters, an argument supported by public opinion polls suggesting that the public supports them.

A public-opinion poll recently released by our organizations found that Washington voters favor charter schools by an overwhelming margin of 60 percent in support versus 23 percent opposed. Moreover, charter schools enjoy majority support among Democrats (51 percent), Republicans (70 percent) and independents (65 percent).

To corroborate those findings, a poll released last month by the Washington Policy Center found that 60 percent of Washingtonians support charter schools, particularly those that serve low-income and urban families.

On the health plan issue the editorial board of the Times comes out in support of the plan to consolidate the current options into a state program. They use the changes and cost savings in Oregon’s system to support their argument. I struggle to understand why it is so difficult to get an idea of cost savings because of the inability to get data as shared in this article that also talks about the differences between the WEA and PSE position on this proposal.

Aside from an estimated $22 million needed to set up the program and a potential $20 to $25 million in annual savings from reducing the role of insurance brokers, no one can reliably say what, if any, savings would result from an overhaul of the $1.3 billion system.

This is largely because insurers, school districts and the Washington Education Association - the state's powerful teachers' union - declined last year to disclose to the Health Care Authority details of how the money in the current system is spent.

Premera Blue Cross, which covers 60 percent of those insured under the school districts, says its spends six percent of the premiums it collects from the state, school districts and school employees on its administrative overhead, which it notes is well below the industry average.

Without seeing a breakdown of how that money is spent, says John Williams, who oversaw the HCA's study on the proposed overhaul, "we have no way to validate that that is an accurate figure."

Not sharing these numbers leads to a loss of credibility and leverage at the bargaining table.  Of course there may not be a bargaining table concerning these issues in Olympia.  It may be continued partisan politics with a few maverick democratic senators all driven by beliefs too far apart for compromising to prevail.  In this environment we see legislation emerge that tries to meet the needs of many such as the changes that were made to the evaluation process.  Hopefully, we won't see similar legislation causing us additional concerns emerge from this protracted special session.

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