Teacher Pensions Blog

A recent Chicago Tonight article highlighted the top pension earners in the Illinois Teachers Retirement System. Only 18 of the top 100 are women, and the majority are white, male administrators. It’s not particularly surprising news, and confirms what we found in two new reports digging into discrepancies across race and gender in teacher wages and subsequent retirement benefits in Nevada and Illinois. In both reports, we found that while the majority of public school teachers (76 percent) are female, male educators out-earn women in terms of annual salaries and retirement benefits. This was a harsh reality on its own, but given that school districts typically operate with transparent, uniform salary schedules, the existence of gaps was that much more troubling.

While there are many potential contributing factors (a motherhood penalty, coaching stipends, lower salaries for female-dominated elementary teachers) it’s likely that disparities in promotions to higher-paying administrative positions play a role. The majority of teachers are female; however, the majority of superintendents (about 75 percent), are male.

Most states enroll all educators--teachers, principals, and superintendents--into one state pension plan. It's usually called the "teacher" plan. But the largest payouts from these "teacher" pension plans aren't actually going to teachers. Instead, the biggest benefactors are long-serving, highly paid administrators, who are predominantly male.

The predominantly female teacher workforce is paying into the same TRS system, but getting less out of it. And unlike a system like Social Security, which awards lower-paid workers with proportionately higher retirement benefits, teacher pension systems lack these kinds of protections. Illinois teachers also don’t pay into Social Security, which further penalizes teachers, but that’s another issue.

These disparities are one byproduct of a back-loaded system that creates a small group of winners at the expense of the majority of employees who lose out. In Illinois, 50 percent of new educators will not qualify for any pension at all (let alone a generous one). Pensions are often billed as especially beneficial to women -- and, if a teacher were to spend the entirety of her career working in the same system, she would earn a comfortable retirement. But we know that this isn't the case for the majority of teachers. All teachers, especially those who have been historically underpaid, deserve a fair, portable retirement plan.