It's not often that an online database generates interest and stirs passion, but the January posting of Michigan school districts' 2008-09 school employee health insurance costs did just that. When Education Policy Director Michael Van Beek announced that the health insurance plans for more than 95 percent of the state's 551 school districts had been compiled and assembled in one place, the public response was remarkable.

Recognizing the fiscal strain that rising health care costs create for school districts, Van Beek supplemented the data with some additional analysis, examining and reporting on regions, trends and private-public comparisons. Some of the findings were eye-popping. Michigan taxpayers spend $2 billion annually to provide health insurance for school employees. The overall price for these plans rose by 86 percent after adjusting for inflation since 1995, while the total number of school employees grew by only 9 percent.

The survey, compiled through hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests, showed that schools provide remarkably generous health insurance plans to their employees. For instance, the average cost for a family plan premium for a teacher is $15,800, which is 29 percent higher than the state average for the same type of plan. Additionally, the average teacher contribution to the cost of those premiums is a mere 4 percent, while the statewide average is 22 percent. Teachers in 301 school districts make no contribution to the cost of their insurance premium.

It was findings like these that caught the media's interest. The database received coverage statewide, including in The Grand Rapid Press, The Kalamazoo Gazette, The Muskegon Chronicle, Midland Daily News, Livingston Daily, WOOD-TV, WZZM-TV, WJR 760AM, WMKT 1270AM, Family Life Radio, WJRW 1340AM, Gongwer News Service and AnnArbor
.com. Because the database is searchable by school district, many media outlets did stories specific to their coverage areas, comparing districts within a particular county or region.

Web traffic for the database was heavy following its debut. In its first two weeks, the site was viewed 14,000 times. Superintendents, school board members, reporters, parents, taxpayers and others continue to make the database one of the most popular destinations on the Center's Web site.

Lansing officials took notice as well. Several legislative offices contacted the Mackinac Center after hearing about the new database, including that of Sen. Majority Leader Mike Bishop, who two weeks later introduced legislation that would require government employees to pay a greater share of their own health care premiums. Legislators praised the project and reported that it would be beneficial to them since the Legislature is considering a number of different bills to curb the rising costs of school employee health insurance.