Blog: State Pension Plans

Unfortunately for teachers entering the classroom as a second career, most state pension plans are designed primarily to support the retirement of teachers with much longer time to serve -- leaving second-career teachers with relatively slim benefits.
Pensions are an investment in the future, but politicians can’t resist the urge to use today’s money to pay for today’s services.
Last week we presented our new paper, Friends without Benefits: How States Systematically Shortchange Teachers' Retirement and Threaten Their Retirement Security, at the 39th annual conference of the Association of Education Finance and Policy (AEFP).
To ensure the accuracy of pension plan assumptions, state retirement systems conduct regular “experience studies” to compare their assumptions with data about the actual numbers observed on the ground. Experience studies help ensure the accuracy of a plan by measuring any fluctuations in the field and proposing subsequent adjustments to plan assumptions. We unearthed over two decades worth of experience studies from North Dakota.
Media sources often cite the average teacher pension, using it as a pivotal talking point for showing benefits as either overly generous or overly stingy. However, averages can be deceptive. The average often includes outliers on both extremes, creating a narrow picture of the pension distribution.

NCTQ’s new report on the state of state teacher pension plans is well worth your time. If you’re new to the pension issue, it does a great job of breaking down the issues in simple and clear language. If you know your way around defined benefit plans, there’s still lots of good resources on, for example, the number of states that made changes to their pension formulas over the last four years. And, if you only care about a particular state, it has lots of tables where you can find exactly how your home state is doing.

So go read it all and save it as a resource. For this blog, I want to pull out one of its main findings and show why it matters. Since 2009, 13 states have changed their vesting requirements, and 11 of those 13 made this period longer. The vesting period is amount of time a teacher must be employed before becoming eligible for pension benefits. If they meet the minimum vesting requirement, they’re eligible for a pension. If they don’t, they typically can get their own contributions back and some interest on those contributions, but they forfeit the contributions their employer made on their behalf.

The graph below shows the distribution of state vesting requirements. In 2012, 25 states required teachers to stay in the state pension plan for at least five years before vesting, and 15 required them to stay 10 years.

With today’s increasingly mobile workforce, five or 10 years is a relatively long time to stay in one job. Many teachers will never meet their vesting requirements and will be forced to forfeit their employer’s contributions and, in many states, they will also lose out on any interest that their investments would have accrued.

Let’s use Illinois as an example of how many teachers will meet the state vesting requirements. In 2010, faced with the one of the largest pension deficits in the country, Illinois created a new, less generous pension plan for new teachers that lengthened the vesting requirement from five years to ten. Education Next ran a report from Bob Costrell, Mike Podgursky, and Christian Weller that showed how the changes will affect teachers who stay their entire career teaching in Illinois (see Figure 2 here). However, we know that a large percentage of teachers won’t ever make it to five years in the profession, let alone 10.