PET: $5.6M Educator Liability Plan May Serve State Interests, Not Teacher’s

Statement from the Professional Educators of Tennessee; Feb. 13, 2012:

Government Liability Insurance is a Bad Idea for Tennessee

By J. C. Bowman

Professional Educators of Tennessee opposes the recently introduced legislation HB 2170. This legislation would require the Department of Education to purchase a liability insurance policy for all professional employees through the state’s competitive bid process. It specifies that the policy shall cover errors and omissions, attorney fee reimbursement in criminal and civil cases, bail bond coverage, assault-related personal property damage, and employment rights. The estimated increase on state expenditures is roughly $5.6 million, which means approximately $72.50 for 77,193 certificated personnel. As proposed it excludes other employees of Boards of Education such as Health Personnel, Secretarial and Clerical Personnel, Plant Operation Personnel, Plant Maintenance Personnel, Food Service Personnel and Educational Assistants which if added would undoubtedly double the liability expenditures.

We believe there are also other factors that should be considered like the increase in the amount of litigation in school districts, which will obviously increase the premium over time. In addition, there will be a loss of revenue in the state coffers if the Tennessee Education Association and Professional Educators of Tennessee are no longer paying the state surplus lines tax or other taxes the state imposes are reduced.

This proposed $5.6 million dollar legislation, a recurring expenditure, may serve the state, but ultimately will not serve the interests of classroom teachers when they experience conflict with the state. When a conflict of interest occurs, and they will occur, the interest of the state will likely prevail. This will mean settlements will be reached, even when teachers may be innocent. The state, in order to save money or diminish the negative publicity, will place its interests above those of the classroom teacher. That is why liability policies already provided by Professional Educators of Tennessee or the Tennessee Education Association, as well as other education groups, offer classroom teachers’ true assistance. That’s the purpose of our existence — to protect those who nurture Tennessee’s children. Joining a professional organization will provide Tennessee teachers with the needed liability insurance and employment protection.

However well-intentioned this bill may be, it also appears it is designed to add recurring expense that can only grow to Tennessee taxpayers and moreover serve to break the back of the teachers union. While we are rivals and disagree with the union on several issues, we think this approach is not in the best interest of Tennessee teachers. Passage of this legislation will also adversely impact our organization. This will silence the voice of classroom teachers in the Legislature.

Our organization was caught off guard with the introduction of state provided liability insurance for teachers. Not only do we think it is a bad idea, it embraces a big government agenda usually opposed by Republican legislators. And for the Democrats, it was Bill Clinton in 1996 who proclaimed “the era of big government” was over. We are also unclear if the state legislature is sending mixed messages, on one hand treating teachers as state employees and on the other having legislation this session on teacher compensation that removes the state mandated salary schedule. It is important that legislators make clear their intention in this area.

A vast majority of Americans oppose Obama Care, because they oppose Government making decisions for which they themselves should be responsible. There is no difference here with this proposal as far as our organization is concerned from an educator’s perspective. The conservative principals espoused by Ronald Reagan proclaimed that government should do no job if there is a business in the Yellow Pages that can do that job better and at a lower cost. We are in fact doing that at Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Professional Educators of Tennessee, and even our competitors, can do a better job providing educator liability insurance than government. Our insurance is among the most comprehensive available. Merely factoring in our “cost per member to insure,” which is what one bill sponsor suggested, is woefully inaccurate. We spend at a minimal at least twice that amount, if not more, to provide the service and staff. Certainly the state does not propose to duplicate our policy or service statewide, and the cost would be prohibitive. My mother taught me many years ago that nothing in life is free. Professional liability insurance for Tennessee teachers will certainly not be free under this proposal. Teachers remember Benjamin Franklin’s adage, “People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both.”

Liability insurance is not enough to protect teachers in the classroom. Liability insurance only goes so far. There is a big difference between liability insurance and employment protection. Hopefully, it’s a difference most teachers will never personally experience. A liability policy provided by the state or even a local school board would likely provide no coverage if that same board brings charges against teachers, paraprofessionals or administrators. Professional Educators of Tennessee protects its members with both superior liability and employment defense. We provide experienced attorneys and membership representatives who are knowledgeable in school law. This is something that free statewide liability insurance simply will not cover.

We urge legislators of both parties to reject this big government legislation and rather work on needed tort reforms to protect Tennessee teachers. Another solution would be to follow the path of some other states that simply mandate that school districts be required to provide information about professional educator liability insurance and organizations that provide such insurance to all their professional employees. The employees are then free to choose the organization or provider of their choice. The cost of a simple notification requirement would be a fraction of the $5.6 in this current bill and not expand the size of government.