Teacher Pensions Blog

One attractive selling point for the teaching profession is that there are schools everywhere; therefore there are teaching jobs everywhere. But, as several recent studies show, that story really only applies to first-time teachers. Once a teacher begins her career in a given state, she becomes very unlikely to teach in a different state.   

A 2015 paper from the Center for Education Data and Research looked at teacher mobility within and across the states of Oregon and Washington. Over a period of 12 years, from 2001 to 2013,  they counted how many teachers moved to a new school within the same state or across the border. It turns out that, while some teachers moved within a state, not many were willing to cross the border: On average, just 0.07 percent of Oregon teachers made a switch into Washington schools, and just 0.03 percent of Washington teachers made the reverse switch.

To put these numbers in context, Oregon teachers were about 24 times more likely to move to another school within Oregon than cross the border into Washington. Washington teachers were 64 times (!) more likely to move schools within the state than to cross into Oregon. The ratios were smaller, but still quite large, when they restricted the sample only to teachers working along the border. What's more, teachers were willing to move much longer distances within their state than cross the state line. Across both states, teachers were four times more likely to move to a new school 250 miles or more within their own state than they were to make a move of any distrance across the state boundary. 

A 2017 paper from Janna Johnson and Morris Kleiner extended these findings nationwide. Compared to other workers, teachers are 39 percent less likely to move across state boundaries, making teaching one of the least mobile professions. 

In 2016, the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest conducted a study on mobility within and across Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. It included teachers as well as principals and district superintendents, and it came to similar conclusions. Across all three states and roles, educators were 50 to 100 times more willing to change schools within a state than to move to a new school across a state border.  

So why are educators so reluctant to move across state lines? It can't just be about demographics. It may make sense that the female-dominated teaching profession would be filled with workers who prefer to take fewer career risks. But nationally, men are only slightly more likely to move across states than women (1.92 versus 1.86 percent). And, although the education profession may attract workers who value stability more than other people, that can't explain why they're willing to move so much more often and so much farther within their own state than across their state's border. 

That leaves at least a couple likely explanations. First, each state imposes its own set of licensing requirements that makes it hard for teachers to seamlessly pursue jobs in a new state. Although many states have reciprocity agreements, these aren't always guaranteed and many teachers face burdensome and opaque licensure requirements if they want to move from one state to another.

Still, licensure requirements can't explain all of this. Teachers have stricter licensing requirements than principals or superintendents, and in the Midwest study teachers had especially low inter-state mobility rates. But even superintendents had much, much higher rates of mobility within states than across them.

There may be other features of the education system, such as funding rules, state standards, etc., that keep people working within their chosen state. State pension plans are playing a role here as well. All of the states in these studies enroll teachers, principals, and superintendents in statewide defined benefit pension plans. Those plans alone are not enough to retain early-career workers in the profession, and it's impossible for a statewide pension plans to act as a retention incentive for any particular district. But pensions do lock educators into a particular state. If a teacher intends to remain in education for her entire career, she's much better off, retirement-wise, staying in one state the whole time. By making just one move across state lines, educators can cut their retirement wealth in half. These penalties, and the fear of them, may be limiting transitions across state lines. 

Regardless of why educators are unwilling to move across state lines, the data suggest the conventional wisdom is wrong: Teachers may be able theoretically to teach anywhere, but in practice they choose not to. 

This post was updated on September 27, 2018.