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Lesson 3.7

The Benefits of Teaching

Teachers traditionally get good health benefits. How does that work?

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No one goes into teaching to get rich, but it's stable work and the benefits tend to be good.

This lesson explains how teacher non-salary benefits work. They are a complex area of public policy.

Teacher benefits are negotiated locally

Most public school teachers are employed by school districts. Benefits, negotiated with the teachers' union, are included as part of the contract. Like all employers, school districts have struggled to sustain benefits in the face of spiraling health care costs. Most districts are small, and lack the power to negotiate good terms with health insurers on their own.

Back in the day, many school districts provided teachers with lifetime health insurance for themselves and their families. Such benefits are now uncommon, though most provide health coverage until Medicare kicks in at age 65.

The main point here is that good heath insurance for teachers is a tradition, not a law. School districts are in the same jam as other employers. Health insurance is expensive, and there's not a magic source of funding for it. Districts that spend more on health insurance must spend less on salaries. It's just math.

Do retired teachers receive benefits?

Many districts provide health care benefits for teachers in retirement. The cost of this benefit has increased significantly, leading some districts to re-think the tradition. According to the California Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) in 2017, "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."

Are teacher sick days a benefit?

Health benefits are an important factor in teacher compensation. Among other things, sick days are negotiated as part of the contract. It is pretty typical for a teacher contract to allow for up to ten sick days with pay. Districts vary in what they do in cases where teachers don't get sick. Some do nothing. Some provide a cash benefit to teachers that don't take sick days, a policy that raised health concerns even before the pandemic. Other districts blend sick day benefits with "personal days," which effectively function as vacation time.

The rising cost of health benefit obligations has put considerable strain on the finances of districts that guaranteed them. Retiree health care is included in a category of expenses commonly alled OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits). Unlike pensions, it is up to districts to determine how to properly fund OPEB, and benefits can be changed. A variety of solutions have been proposed to fund teacher health care without bankrupting school districts.

If a district over-commits on teacher benefits, the state pays

California taxpayers have a shared interest in the solvency of school districts. The obligation to provide public education is enshrined in the state constitution. This means that the State of California is ultimately on the hook for providing students with an education. The state delegates the authority to operate schools to school districts, but districts are expected to discharge that authority capably.

For decades, California's school system had weak controls in place to account for long-term liabilities; districts sometimes made long-term commitments without fully understanding their implications. This problem afflicted school districts that agreed to contracts promising teachers long-term or lifetime health benefits. The problem is particularly large in Los Angeles, which carries an unfunded liability that the California Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) in 2017 estimated at about $27,000 per student.

As the old axiom goes, all debts are paid somehow. Liabilities incurred locally through district and union negotiations must fall within the means of the community, or the state can "take over," revoking the community's right to govern its own schools, invalidating employment contracts and bond commitments, and imposing financial obligations that can linger for a very long time. Oakland, Compton and Inglewood all stand as cautionary tales to school boards that can't or don't do their math.

Los Angeles Unified faces serious challenges to bring its finances into balance. According to Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners, as of 2016 "the district already is spending about $493 per pupil and $12,221 per teacher to provide former employees, their spouses, and dependents with free medical, dental, and vision coverage."

Counties play a "watchdog" role

Clearly, school districts need oversight to ensure that they don't make commitments that can break the bank. 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 candidates 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 do happen.

The "deal" for teachers

Non-salary benefits are a critical part of "the deal" for teachers. Teaching used to pay pretty well relative to average wages for college graduates, but this advantage has evaporated, 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 regarded as part of the "deal" or an abuse of the system.

The psychic benefits of teaching

Pay is important, but money isn't everything. As discussed in Lesson 3.1, teachers aren't lavishly compensated — at least not in dollars.

For most people who choose teaching as their profession, the work matters to them, intrinsically. It's not just a job. They care about kids. Most teachers also care about being appreciated and respected for the work they do. Respect for educators has a cultural component, which the Varkey Foundation has studied in a series of international surveys. One curious finding of the survey is that American high school teachers hold their profession in lower esteem than the general public does:

How to show appreciation for teachers

It's difficult to change a whole national culture to systematically respect and appreciate teachers. But there are things you can do to help, and many of them aren't difficult or costly. For example, of course teachers appreciate cards and authentic expressions of appreciation.

Is there a teacher who made a difference in your life? Reach out and tell them. Don't overthink it.

Updated: September 2018
October 2021
September 2022


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
Mohammad Kashmiri August 28, 2022 at 5:57 pm
We are getting strangled on healthcare costs so insurance companies can get billions in profits. This article misses the critical role of America’s non-functional system of healthcare. CalCare/Medicare4All would decrease the cost of healthcare, cover everyone, and get rid of copays/premiums while allowing freedom of choice of doctors. Every other industrialized country has adopted it except us…

user avatar
Robert Niz December 14, 2018 at 6:39 am
I have never unstood why using sick leave given to us is considered an abuse of the system. Don't give it, if you don't like the sick leave being used.
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
Selisa Loeza October 23, 2021 at 12:14 am
Ido you know if there is any data on output from teachers that receive better/more flexible benefits?
user avatar
Jeff Camp October 23, 2021 at 9:24 am
I'm not aware of any compelling research that connects the structure of teacher benefits to student outcomes. The chain of effect is too tenuous. Benefits aren't something you really think about on a Tuesday morning prepping for class, and they're rarely a deciding factor in whether to take or leave a job.
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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