U.S. schools' next big problem: The cost of teacher obesity

The childhood obesity epidemic has lately been much in the news. Last week, the Washington Post ran an extensive series about it, and this week the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the number of overweight youngsters may have reached a plateau. (A high plateau--in 2006, fully 16 percent of children were "obese," and another 16 percent were significantly overweight. That adds up to one kid in three.)

In all such pieces, the media could not help but focus on schools and their role in solving the problem. The media--and the public--always seem to think that schools should fix whatever is the social crisis du jour. This illustrates a fundamental lack of respect (or, perhaps, appreciation) for schools' primary mission: to develop the intellectual and academic capabilities of their charges.

In this case, however, the media's focus on schools overlooked a separate and at least equally consequential (and closely related) problem that should be a major concern of school systems: the teacher obesity epidemic. That's because the health insurance costs associated with treating overweight teachers and other school staff are taking a major bite out of public education budgets. I estimate that these costs come to at least $2.5 billion annually--more than Maine spends on its entire k-12 system in a year.

This calculation assumes that the obesity rate among people who work in k-12 education is the same as that for the population as a whole: about one-third of all adults. (I can't think of any reason why it would be lower--and if you've been to many educator gatherings lately, you wouldn't think so, either.) It also assumes that the costs associated with treating obese educators are similar to those for the population as a whole, where these expenses account for at least six percent and as much as eleven percent of America's health care bill. (This includes the higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, etc. associated with excessive weight.) According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, schools spend about 16 cents on health insurance for every dollar they pay in salaries. And the National Center for Education Statistics reports that, in 2004-2005, our schools spent about $260 billion on salaries. Do the math and you arrive at the eye-popping figure of at least $2.5 billion per year for obesity-related health care for school system employees.

That's a lot of money--dollars that could be used in the classroom instead, boosting teacher salaries or lowering class sizes, buying better software programs or doing any number of other things that might actually help students learn more. A study by the Prichard Committee, a Kentucky-based education reform group, found that 83 percent of the growth in education spending in that state from 1992 to 2004 was gobbled up by rising health care and pension costs. If taxpayers feel like they keep pumping more money into our public schools without getting much in return, plump educators might be one reason why.

What might schools do? First, stop giving health care away for free. Thanks to over-generous collective bargaining agreements, many teachers pay little or nothing for health insurance, making them oblivious to the cost of medical care. In New York, Philadelphia, and San Diego, for example, the district picks up the entire cost of health insurance premiums for teachers. (New York City picks up the tab for their families, too. And that's without even getting to the sticky, pricey issue of former and retired teachers and their families.)

"Free healthcare" is probably not the motivating factor for Super-Sizing one's order at McDonald's or ordering three pizzas for a group that could easily get by with two. But asking teachers to shoulder some of the burden of paying for their medical expenses would provide at least a nudge in the right direction.

It's not unlike paying taxes. When most of us were young, earning a low salary, and thus paying few taxes, we tended to ignore debates about the size of government. As we earned more, however, and found ourselves paying thousands of dollars a year in taxes, questions about government costs and efficiency got much more relevant. It's my money at stake now; and I don't want government wasting my money.

So it is with health care. If insurance isn't costing us anything, we become oblivious to the news that health-care costs are soaring. But if those soaring costs start to take a bite out of my paycheck, I become more sensitive to the ways people waste (and overcharge for) health care. Perhaps it will make me want to be healthier in order to keep my bill from rising--but just as importantly, it will make me more aware of how the behavior of others is biting into my take-home pay. In subtle ways that starts to put a stigma on unhealthy behavior.

Smart school systems would also subsidize wellness and prevention programs to help their employees exercise, lose weight, and get healthy. (Corporations have been doing this for years--not out of love but out of concern for their bottom lines.) They could offer (and help pay for) Weight Watchers-type programs on school grounds. They could ensure that the school cafeteria offers healthy options. High schools could make their gym and fitness facilities available to teachers; even elementary schools usually have mats on which yoga or Pilates is possible. And they might discourage the parade of cakes, brownies, doughnuts, and other goodies that make their way regularly into the faculty lounge.

Such efforts can make a difference. Last year, the American Federation of Teachers highlighted a program in Minneapolis whereby the district paid for "wellness-related expenses ranging from exercise equipment to health club memberships to behavior modification programs such as smoking cessation, weight loss or stress management classes." Health insurance claims dropped by 10 to 15 percent among teachers who participated in the program.

There's another benefit: how better to encourage chubby children to exercise and eat right and lose weight than for them to see their heroes--their teachers--do so?

As schools wrap up for the year, and school boards fret about straining budgets, here's a suggestion education leaders might take to heart: encourage your staff to get some R and R this summer, sure, but encourage them to exercise and eat right, too.

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