New state health insurance program will be good for school employees but a state budget challenge.

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After years of negotiations and debate, the Legislature is finally righting a wrong and creating a new statewide school employee health insurance pool.

Starting next year, paraeducators, part-time bus drivers and cafeteria workers plus their dependents will get the same kind of health insurance benefits offered to teachers, a major step for these crucial partners in education. And school employees from small, rural districts will get decent insurance at a fair price, just like their colleagues in large, wealthy urban and suburban districts.

This change is long-overdue.

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Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, has been trying for the past decade to get the state to take over school employee health insurance, because it’s the right thing to do. That came at some political cost as the state teachers union was strongly opposed.

“We shirked our responsibility for years,” Hobbs said.

School districts will also benefit as the state takes over more of the cost of their employees’ health insurance, which makes this policy change also a win for budget fairness.

This centralized health insurance, under the new School Employees Benefits Board, will add as much as $900 million to the two-year state budget. The change is not directly related to the 2012 Supreme Court McCleary ruling on school funding, but the state should be paying the benefits as well as the salaries of school employees.

Some of the increased state costs come from adding 9,000 more employees plus about 30,000 dependents to state employee health insurance. Those employees were left off or charged too much in the old district-by-district insurance system because they work part-time. Although many school districts offer affordable insurance plans to individuals, the family plans were out of reach for many school employees. The new system will fix that inequity.

The state budget has many competing priorities. But lawmakers must find the money.

Not only will the new system move these costs from districts into a statewide system, but now the state will benefit from having a larger insurance pool. And perhaps most important, the new School Employees Benefits Board is another step toward making Washington’s education funding system more fair.