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Lesson 3.7

The Benefits of Teaching

Teachers get good health benefits. Can we afford them?

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No one goes into teaching to get rich, but it's stable work with good benefits, including health insurance. Non-salary benefits for teachers are a much-valued part of teacher compensation. They are also a complex area of public policy.

Health benefits are negotiated locally

Most public school teachers are employed by school districts and health insurance is included in the benefits they offer their employees. These benefits are negotiated locally between districts and unions, but they are also negotiated between employers and insurance providers. Like all employers, districts have struggled to address spiraling health care costs. Most districts are small, and lack the power to negotiate good terms with health insurers on their own. To keep costs down some districts band together to purchase benefits -- and some put a cap on how much the district will spend per employee.

At one time, many teachers received lifetime health insurance for themselves and even for their families as part of their compensation. Such benefits are now uncommon - by 2012 just 80 of California's ~1,000 districts provided any teachers with lifetime health benefits. Some districts and unions have been slow to drop these elements from their agreements, and now find themselves grappling with significant unfunded liabilities. This creates a problem not only for districts but also for current students; when liabilities grow large, a district's financing costs go up, which takes funds away from instruction. This process is of little interest to most community members, and even to many school boards and union leaders.

Limited retiree benefits; Source: LAO

According to the California Legislative Analyst, "Adjusted for inflation, districts today are spending about twice as much on retiree health benefits as they did in the early 2000s. This added cost pressure comes at a time when districts are facing other pressures—most notably, rising pension costs and expectations to enhance services for low-income students and English learners."

If a district over-commits, the state is on the hook

Everyone has a shared interest in the solvency of school districts. The obligation to provide public education is enshrined in state constitutions. That obligation means the State of California is ultimately on the hook for providing students with an education. Liabilities incurred locally through district and union negotiations must fall within the means of the community, or the state steps in by taking away that community's right to govern its own schools.

Counties play a "watchdog" role

The job of evaluating district finances falls to County Offices of Education, which certify district budgets. In California, most County Superintendents of Education are elected, not appointed. Voters, understandably, tend to evaluate a candidate for this office based on experience in educational leadership rather than financial and organizational experience. The state's Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) provides counties and districts with technical support, but mistakes happen.

The "deal" for teachers

Non-salary benefits are a critical part of "the deal" for teachers. Teaching does not pay well relative to other employment, a topic we take up in the next lesson. It can be very hard for teachers to make ends meet, especially in the densely-populated areas of the state where property values are high. Districts do what they can to make the "deal" work out. For example, in some districts it is quite common for teachers to claim all of their "sick days" each year, not necessarily for reasons of illness. Tolerance of teacher absenteeism is not universal; the culture of each school and district determines whether "mental health breaks" are part of the "deal" or an abuse of the system.

Do you know where to find the formal benefits policies for teachers in your district? It might be difficult to find. Check with your district office to find a copy of the current teacher's contract. Don't be shocked if it's a thick document!

Updated October 2017


Health insurance benefits are part of teachers’ total compensation. These benefits are negotiated:

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar September 25, 2017 at 4:49 pm
Want more information about retiree health benefits? The Legislative analyst gives you the details:
user avatar
Jeff Camp July 5, 2018 at 12:46 pm
According to the LAO report that Carol mentions above, the challenge is uniquely massive in LAUSD, which carries an unfunded liability of $26,929 per student for health care benefits the district has promised to its employees.
user avatar
Jeff Camp February 10, 2017 at 6:08 pm
The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) collected teacher contracts in major districts across the US to compare them. This study found significant differences among the agreements. It also found significant differences among districts in how strictly they enforce the terms. For example, in some districts it is customary for teachers to use all their "sick" days each year. Some contracts distinguish between "sick days" and "personal days." Some contracts permit teachers to "roll over" their sick days. Others even permit teachers to cash them out.
user avatar
ptalisa April 28, 2015 at 5:58 pm
Not because of benefits but because they love to teach. My benefits are not great.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 1:40 pm
The retirement, at least in some states, is worth it. Teacher retirement systems are generally well designed. Benefits are available in most work environments. The added (unseen) benefit is the time off for holidays, summers, etc. It is a perfect profession for moms and dads who are passionate about teaching kids and yet also want a job that accommodates their families.
user avatar
nguyen_khanh January 17, 2015 at 11:47 pm
Like many other educators in the country, I went into teaching not because of the strong health coverage benefits; I choose to stay in teaching because it's the most rewarding job in the world. I believe in order to attract talented and dedicated individuals into the teaching profession, we must offer them higher salaries and strong health coverage benefits.
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