Blog: State Pension Plans

Pension systems don't believe that back-end teacher salary bumps are sufficient to change teacher behavior.

Giving teachers a say over their retirement plan just might be good for everyone.

The majority of states enroll their public school teachers in defined benefit (DB) pension plans. These plans are back-loaded, and they mainly benefit the small portion of teachers who remain both in the classroom and in the same state for 20 years or more. Supporters of these plans argue pensions are a retention tool – teachers might be less likely to leave the profession if there’s a large financial incentive waiting for them if they stay. These advocates rarely acknowledge that this idea suggests it's ok to use someone's retirement security as a tool to shape their behavior, but it's worth investigating whether these claims play out in pratice. That is, does a teacher's retirement plan shape her behavior?

My colleague Chad Aldeman has a forthcoming piece on this question in Education Next, but a recent study published by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) provides some initial answers. The study, authored by Dan Goldhaber, Cyrus Grout, and Kristian Holden, looked at what happened when Washington State switched from a pure DB system to a hybrid plan. Hybrid plans combine aspects from portable, defined contribution (DC) models, like 401(k)s, as well as traditional, defined benefit plans, like most pensions. Here’s how it worked:

Washington introduced their current hybrid plan (called TRS3) in 1995, to replace their existing DB plan (TRS2). At the time, existing employees remained in the original DB plan, while new hires were enrolled in the new hybrid plan. A two-year transfer period allowed teachers in the DB plan the option to switch into the hybrid plan – those who did so received a bonus payment equal to 65% of their accrued TRS2 contributions.

In 2007, Washington made changes again. Teachers hired after that point can select either the DB plan or the hybrid plan, with the latter as the default option for those who do not make an affirmative selection. The table below shows the differences between the two plans: 

Public Pension Reform and Teacher Turnover: Evidence from Washington State 2015

So what happened to teacher retention after Washington changed its retirement plan? The study compares three sets of teacher turnover rates:

1.    Teachers hired just before and after the introduction of the hybrid plan

2.    Teachers who could choose between the DB or hybrid plan as new hires

Puerto Rico’s pension system is an accelerated example of pension problems in the rest of the country. This is where many states are headed if they don't make reforms now.
Teacher pension systems compound inequitable school funding formulas. In Illinois, the state teacher pension fund funnels less money to the kids who need it the most.
How good is Iowa’s pension plan for the state’s teachers? Are there other alternatives that could provide better benefits?

State-based teacher pension plans are important. They make up an enormous portion of local K-12 budgets, and the vast majority of them are underfunded. But despite their weight, or maybe as a symptom of, the intricacies of these systems can be difficult to navigate. The National Council on Teacher Quality’s recent report, Lifting the Pension Fog, works to demystify the topic. The NCTQ team, in partnership with EdCounsel, collected teacher retirement data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We’re eager to build on their work in a forthcoming piece; they’ve provided a lot to work with. One data point that stands out though, is rising contribution rates.

NCTQ researchers found that just eight states have reasonable contribution rates – which they define as a combined contribution rate of 10-15 percent of salary. Unfortunately, a significant portion of pension contributions today are going toward debt costs – not to teachers themselves (see Figure 3 here). We’ve written about this before, but the short of it is that today’s new teachers are paying for years of pension system underfunding in the form of lower benefits and stagnant salaries. State pension debts are posing risks to hiring and retaining a quality teaching workforce.

But employer contributions are just one part of the plan. The graph below shows total teacher pension contribution rates (the table at the bottom of the post has the same data in text format). The blue bars represent the employer contribution (which can come from the state, a district, or both), and the orange bars represent the employee’s share. 

As the graph shows, the total contribution rates are daunting. The average is now 24 percent, and states like Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Illinois are all contributing over 40 percent of a teacher’s salary into their state retirement system. Other states are heading in that direction.

Both teacher and employer contributions have been trending upward. Since 2008, 30 states have increased teacher contributions. In 1982, only 13 state plans had employee contribution rates of 7 percent or above. Today, 29 do.

Breaking down the options for states facing large unfunded pension liabilities.
A recent study found that nearly two-thirds of California teachers will be pension "losers."
Education advocates have a lot on their plates. Common Core. School accountability systems. Teacher policy. Pre-k. Here's why they should consider adding teacher pension reform to their lists.

For some professions, it’s all about: “location, location, location.” For online start-ups, you probably want to be in Silicon Valley.  If you want to work on the stock market, head to New York City. But for teachers, where you work doesn’t matter, right?

Wrong.

According to WalletHub’s recent analysis, there is significant variation in teacher job quality from state-to-state.

But WalletHub’s rankings shouldn’t be taken at face value. And, as with any aggregate state ranking, the devil is in the details. About 14 percent of their total Job Opportunity & Completion Rank is based on the cost-adjusted “average” teacher pension in each state.

That’s a big problem. Averages can easily distort what’s actually going on.

Evaluating teacher retirement systems based on the average pension is misleading, because the majority of teachers do not even receive a pension. In Washington, D.C., for example, the average teacher pension is extremely high at almost $65,000, but only 29 percent of teachers ever qualify for a pension. So rating D.C.’s pension system on the average benefit of those who remain misrepresents the retirement realities teachers face. Simply put, a state’s average pension value does not provide much useful information about the quality of teachers’ retirement.

There are a couple of ways WalletHub could have evaluated state pension systems more effectively. For example, they could have used a vesting rate. This would grade states on the percentage of teachers that actually qualify for a pension. But even that won’t address other important concerns, such as whether teacher retirement benefits are portable or whether a state’s pension system is financially stable.

In WalletHub’s defense, teacher pensions are complicated. In fact, this points to a larger problem: teachers often lack sufficient information about their retirement. What is the vesting period? Do I qualify for Social Security? What is the retirement age?

The answers to these questions matter.