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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 at least the benefits are good, right?

Non-salary benefits — especially health insurance — are a complex element of teacher compensation. This lesson explains what these benefits actually are, and why your assumptions about them might be wrong. (Note that this lesson doesn't discuss teacher pensions — they're the subject of Lesson 3.11)

Teacher health benefits are negotiated locally

Teachers are employed by school districts. Aside from salary and pension, the biggest "benefit" of teaching is health insurance. Back in the day, many school districts paid for top-grade lifetime health insurance for teachers and their families. Those days are long gone. Health care costs have exploded, and there's not a magic source of funding for it.

School districts have to make difficult tradeoffs, balancing the interests of students, teachers, staff and community members. The tradeoffs are codified in contracts, which are negotiated with the teachers' union and others. There is nothing automatic about teacher benefits like health insurance.

Good health insurance for teachers is a choice that requires tradeoffs

The main point here is that good heath insurance for teachers is a choice. It's a tradition, not a law. Districts that spend more on health insurance must spend less on salaries. It's just math.

Do retired teachers receive benefits?

Historically, many districts provided health care benefits for teachers in retirement. As the cost of this benefit ballooned, many districts and unions dropped it.

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."

If a district over-commits on teacher benefits, who pays?

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 ensuring that all students get an education. The state doesn't operate schools directly — it delegates its authority to school districts. California taxpayers have a shared interest in the solvency of school districts.

The County Watchdog
School districts need oversight to ensure that they don't make commitments that can break the bank and make education worse for future students. The highly technical job of certifying district finances falls to the state's 58 County Offices of Education (COEs). In California, most County Superintendents of Education are elected, not appointed. Voters, understandably, have little idea about the role of job, and tend to evaluate candidates for the 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. (For more, see Ed100 Lesson 7.4)

For decades, California had weak controls to account for the long-term promises that its 1,000 school districts made in contracts with teachers and other employees. Some of those promises were enormous. Notably, the massive Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD) committed to provide health benefits to teachers for life, a huge uncapped liability. In accounting lingo, obligations like this fall under the catch-all term Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB).

As the old axiom goes, in the end all debts are paid somehow. According to Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners, as of 2016 the district was "already 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." In 2023, the credit rating agency Fitch estimated the district's remaining unfunded OPEB liability at about $10.2 billion, roughly equivalent to $19,000 per student.

Sick days are an abused benefit

Health benefits are an important factor in teacher compensation, and sick day policies 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. It's one of the most abused benefits in the education system, and it matters: teacher absences are bad for learning.

Nationally, the average employee with a college degree misses work about three days per year (1.2%). For teachers in traditional public schools the average is eight days per year (4.4%). The teacher absence rate varies wildly from school to school because schools are inconsistent in how they treat teacher absenteeism. There are no easy answers. To encourage attendance, some districts have tried offering a cash benefit to teachers that don't take sick days, but the policy raised health concerns even before the pandemic.

It's tempting to imagine that the cost of an absent teacher is a few hundred bucks, the one-day the cost of hiring a substitute. If only! Here's a more complete way to think about it. In 2023 the average cost of public education was about $17,000 per student per year — let's call it roughly $1,000 per day. If there are 30 students in a class, the total invested in that day of school is about $30,000. Ask yourself: is the substitute just as effective as the regular teacher? 50% as effective? 10%? The direct cost of paying a substitute is a tiny fraction of the real cost in lost learning.

(The use of time in education is the focus of Ed100 Chapter 4.)

The psychic benefits of teaching

Money isn't everything.

For most people who choose teaching as their profession, it's not just a job, it's a way to make a difference. Teachers 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.

Last updated: October 2023


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
Justice Landes February 15, 2024 at 9:09 pm
Echoing this - okay, teachers take more sick days, but they also get sick more often because they're in a room with lots of kids all day. Not to mention, it seems to be a significantly more stressful job than many, which means more mental health / personal days.
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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