In The News
Yet again Journal Co. earns an F in education insight
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
I’ve been complaining for years that education coverage by my old employer, the Journal Company, has been myopic and misguided, the classic case of the blind man feeling the elephant and thinking it’s a snake.
All that became crystal clear to the public March 7 in a column by Alan Borsuk suggesting eliminating a health insurance choice could save the Milwaukee Public Schools $47 million by some estimates, or what he figures would be 450 teaching jobs if that was how the schools used the money (which never happens).
These savings numbers aren’t right either, as you will see. But they sound good, make a headline and reflect the statistical mind game the community has been subjected to in the newspaper. This time there was a moving personal touch.
Borsuk is a longtime colleague I often admired, particularly when he defied marching orders from city editors in previous decades, though not so much more recently as obedient education reporter. He recently left Journal Sentinel (though hired to do columns) to work for Marquette University as a senior fellow.
But let’s not have any jokes about leaving one ivory tower for another. After all, I was also a voluntary departure from the Journal – in 1995. We shared the newsroom for decades when I was both columnist and a senior editor.
Borsuk was talking in his March 7 column about the MPS choice between a Preferred Provider plan (Aetna) with more doctors and mobility and an HMO limited to its own physicians and services at about $7,000 less a year. His married daughter is insured through her MPS husband’s HMO. Faced with a rare illness, she got good health care at less cost to her family than if she had been in Aetna, the Borsuk column suggests.
For a decade after I left the Journal, my only family health plan included four children. It was through my wife who was a Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (union) member, but we took the Aetna option because one child had an illness even rarer than Borsuk’s daughter – Williams Syndrome, requiring an artificial valve in her heart. If we had taken the HMO we would have lost the cardiologist who supervised that operation and still monitors her monthly blood levels and lifelong medication. Unlike Borsuk’s son-in-law and family, we would have had to abandon trusted expertise in the HMO.
My old colleague Alan seems to abstract from his personal experience (something we see a lot of in education coverage) that the lower-cost HMO is where the Aetna MPS members should move (though you may recall that the choice of health care was something that private and public companies once bargained for fiercely and is still mandated in many contracts).
I would never extrapolate from my own story that every MPS employee should move into Aetna. I’m happy things worked out for the Borsuk family, I’m glad the HMO choice works for many, but I know families and health needs differ and options are what workers look for, and without Aetna many MPS families would suffer. It’s right that every worker should think carefully about this, but it is wrong to suggest a Fascist universe where some bean-counter forces you to pick the door on the right or the door on the left.
That’s true not just in health care but in public education. This is why talking about education reform requires recognizing diversity of families, income, children’s needs and how to adjust. The issue is complex, admonishing real thought, not the absurd tendency of newspapers and politicians to suggest one size fits all.
Borsuk’s column didn’t embrace diversity and complexity. It did seem to be beating up on unions. For instance, he pooh-poohed the argument of MTEA President Mike Langyel that moving everyone in Aetna to the HMO would be a “fantasy” savings. But Langyel probably wasn’t denying any initial savings – he was debunking the exaggeration. Adding more members and making the HMO absorb the sicker workers and special needs that flock to Aetna (because HMOs tend to attract the healthier or less immediately threatened) will dilute if not evaporate the savings envisioned by the MPS and Borsuk.
What’s really going on here may be hidden. MPS would like, as I suspect Borsuk knows, for MTEA members to pay the cost difference in taking Aetna over an HMO, but MPS won’t bargain to bring up the wages the union lost to have the option. Meanwhile, health reform trudges on in Congress without imposing universal caps on private health insurance premiums, which further validates Langyel’s caution.
A cozy timely complement to Borsuk’s vision occurred in a press conference by the other Marquette fellow media escapee from the Journal Company, Mike Gousha, once of WTMJ. His guest, Mayor Tom Barrett, told a story Borsuk knew about – another personal spin that attacked MPS health costs.
Barrett’s wife is an MPS teacher and when the family compared the city and MPS HMOs and found them good and about the same, the Barretts opted for the city version – and the $500 the MPS gives any employee who doesn’t take its health coverage.
The smart move gained $500 for the mayor’s family, but it says little about MPS health care, except how similar it is to the city. The story accidentally emphasizes that most residents don’t have the Barrett option – shifting from a taxpayer paid school health plan to a taxpayer paid city health plan.
The mayor and Borsuk both conveniently neglected to mention how the MTEA has offered health cost savings over the years – maybe not as much as they’d like but far more than publicized. Sure, the union won’t give cash for dropping Aetna to take the HMO and would probably fight paying the difference between the two plans without contractual give-backs.
But MTEA members who refuse the health wellness test pushed by the union are penalized $200 a year out of their own wages. And the MTEA contract provides a $250 incentive to union members who complete the wellness program.
And while the MPS complains that the unions don’t give enough in health care costs, back in 2004-2006 the MTEA offered a sweet deal that looks sweeter today – members would pay more for health care according to their wages, higher paid workers more and lower paid workers less, plus all MTEA members would pay in whether they used health coverage or not.
An arbitrator conceded that the MTEA plan would save more money at the start but chose the school administration’s version because it promised more savings down the road, through such things as bargaining power for lower premiums.
Well, six years later we’ve seen how that turned out.
The MPS, Journal editorials and those opposing the union idea lived in a la-la land where they somehow thought private insurance companies would work for the public good. At least the teachers’ plan put the teeth of real bucks into the budget.
Neither the school board, the union nor the media did an analysis of what the rejected MTEA concept would return in savings. I suspect the numbers would look better than 450 teachers but without a means test I don’t know – just as no one including Borsuk knows what dropping Aetna might actually save, or not.
You can go through the issues of the public schools and find such gaps in logic throughout the newspaper coverage.
Accountability tests are good, but why do they ignore actual improvements created by teachers in a difficult school?
Charter schools work, but particularly and provable when taught and operated by union professionals, not by fly-by-night pitchmen who buy Mercedes or vacation in Cancun.
Voucher schools cost property owners more than public schools, flat out. They aren’t better than public schools for low income families on the whole. They are better in public relations, keep the costlier special needs kids in the public schools and away from their children and they are better in rescuing from bankruptcy traditional religious schools that had established systems and can now pack in students of different faiths to gain taxpayer money.
One-sided news coverage tends to inflame simplicities across the board, so all these issues are indeed more nuanced than I’m indicating in shorthand. But so, frankly, was the choice of new MPS superintendent Gregory Thornton who actually fits like a glove with the concepts of Barrett, Gov. Doyle, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and even Journal editorials, but is still demeaned because those guys didn’t get to pick him and the school board did.
Local control is also more nuanced than mayoral takeover. Race to the Top funds center instead on cooperation and coordination.
And the governor needs to pay the state’s fair share of education rather than throw a hissy fit when his schemes are thwarted.
You wouldn’t sense much of this reading the newspaper, but it will always have some nonsense about an easy “big step toward a solution right in front of us” – as Borsuk’s column proclaimed.
Rather, education is tough, complicated work, personal family stories are seldom universal, newspapers shouldn’t duck the real nuances --- and even a broken alarm clock can be right twice a day.