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The Biggest Education Issue That Is Not Education

Did you catch last night's relatively tame debate between Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on CNN? Education got only a passing mention.

However, as I listened to the two candidates, it occurred to me that perhaps the single most important thing that the next president can do for schools has little to do with education, at least on its face.

And that's reforming health care.

I argue this for two reasons. First, there were 8.7 million uninsured children in the U.S. in 2006, according to the latest Census data. That's enough students to fill about 350,000 classrooms. And we all know that healthier kids make better students.

And second, and perhaps more important to schools as a whole, health care costs for teachers and retirees are eating up a tremendous part of school districts' budgets. In California alone, school districts spend more than $279 million a year just on health care for retirees—and that doesn't even count current teachers. What's more, that figure only covers 475 of the 1,036 districts surveyed by a California commission studying the issue.

Los Angeles Unified spends $211 million a year just on health care for its retired teachers, which is 4 percent of the payroll. That's enough money to give each of its 768 schools an additional $274,379 for programs. And imagine what LA Unified's health care tab is when you add in current teachers!

This isn't just a California issue.

A study by Kentucky's Prichard Committee, a citizen's advocacy group, found that school districts were expecting to spend $484.2 million on health care this year, up from $160 million in 1992 (and that figure is adjusted for inflation). What's more telling: 83 percent of the growth in state spending on education from 1992-2004 was eaten up by health care and retirement benefits.

School finance lawsuits have been waged across the country, including in Kentucky, to win more money for schools, and many of those lawsuits have been victorious. But these health care numbers tell me that the fight shouldn't just be about more money for schools. Because right now, that "more money" seems to be funneled into benefits payments, including health care.

For more on the candidates' health care proposals, read Obama's plan here, and Clinton's here. On the GOP side, check out John McCain's plan here, Mitt Romney's here, and Mike Huckabee's here.

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