In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, we think one of the ways states could thank teachers would be to make sure they all have secure, portable, sustainable retirement benefits. Unfortunately, too many teachers do not. To help illustrate why that’s not happening, consider six ways states make it harder for teachers to qualify for secure retirement benefits, as told through the lens of some of the most memorable, fictional teachers and educators:
Transitioning: State pension plans require teachers to remain as a teacher in that state for five or even 10 years to qualify for a pension at all. But according to the pension plans themselves, about half of all new teachers don’t make it that far. Teachers like Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel) in New Girl and even Laura Ingalls Wilder (loosely fictional, I know, work with me) ultimately leave the profession after only a few years, and thus without any retirement benefits.
Portability: In most states, teacher pension benefits are not portable, and states impose barriers for teachers who want to transfer their benefits to other professions or other states. In contrast, Professor Indiana Jones and other higher education teachers typically have more portable retirement benefits, even if they work at public colleges and universities.
Breakeven: For the majority of teachers, what they can anticipate in retirement benefits will actually be worth less than what they contributed to the system while they were in the classroom. Viewers may not feel sorry for the plight of Matthew Broderick in Election, but he loses more than his job and his dignity over the course of the film. In Nebraska, where Broderick’s character taught, only 12 percent of teachers stay long enough to earn a pension worth more than their own contributions.
Social Security: What do Erin Gurwell in Freedom Writers (played by Hilary Swank), Mr. Hand in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Ray Walston), and Nona Alberts in Won’t Back Down (Viola Davis) have in common? All three taught in California, a state where teachers do not qualify for Social Security benefits. They aren’t alone. Teachers in 15 states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas) and the District of Columbia go uncovered.
Leadership: Most states enroll all educators — teachers, principals, and superintendents — into one state pension plan, and it's usually named the "teacher" plan. But the largest payouts from "teacher" pension systems aren't actually going to teachers. Instead, the biggest winners are long-serving, highly paid administrators. For example, while teacher Edna Krabappel might earn a decent pension for her years of tolerating Bart Simpson, Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers likely do even better. In this way, pension formulas amplify the gender wage gap
Longevity: This is morbid, but pensions are only beneficial so long as you don’t die. In October Sky, Miss Riley (played by Laura Dern) accepts a low West Virginia teacher salary in exchange for an expensive pension benefit that never comes. Or, spoiler alert: Several of Hogwarts’ Defense Against the Dark Arts professors (Quirinus Quirrell, Gilderoy Lockhart, Remus Lupin... all of them?) don’t make it into retirement.
These are all fictional characters, but they help illustrate common problems with teacher pension plans. We should work to make sure teachers don’t have to suffer from these same problems in their real lives.