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Teacher Pensions Fuel Generation Divide

In case young teachers don't know it, they are being financially exploited by the defined-benefit pension system that exists in almost all school districts  ("How Young Teachers Pay for Those Who Won't Budge," The Wall Street Journal, Sep. 15). At least that's the argument since pensions are structured to favor teachers who spend their entire career in the same district.  In short, those who leave early or change districts are funding pensions for lifers ("Why Teachers Aren't Getting Their Pensions," The Atlantic, Sep. 16).

To understand why, it's necessary to take a closer look at the math involved.  In their first few years in a district, teachers accrue almost no retirement wealth.  It's only as they approach retirement that they amass substantially more. In other words, the system is heavily backloaded.  Reformers maintain that this structure plays a powerful role in discouraging the best and the brightest college graduates from entering the classroom. It's the same argument that Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City's public schools, made several years ago ("Why Teacher Pensions Don't Work," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 10, 2011).

But there's another side to the story.  Although teachers are not mercenaries, neither are they missionaries. One of the considerations they take into account is job security. They accept low salaries in their early years in exchange for a guaranteed pension at the end of their lifetime commitment.  I don't doubt that there are some young teachers who would prefer a higher entry salary and a lower pension if given a choice. Or they are the ones who intend to buff their resume by teaching for a few years before going on to something else. But I say that in both cases they are in the minority.  

What bothers me the most, however, is characterizing teachers who opt to spend 30 years or more in the classroom as deadwood.  It is insulting.  Are there some teachers who are burned-out and should take early retirement?  Of course. The rules should be changed to allow them to exit without treating them like leeches who are hanging on solely to extract the most out of the system.

One way of doing so is to provide these veteran teachers with a larger interest percentage for their paid-in contributions. That way they wouldn't be penalized for taking early retirement.  So many teachers who admit to being burned-out say they are holding on only to avoid taking a hit on their pension.  I say it's time to express appreciation to teachers who have devoted almost their entire working years to the education of the young. They're hardly saints, but they deserve better than what they're now getting.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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