Students are back in school all across the nation now. While many students returned at some point in August, the Tuesday after Labor Day traditionally marks the first day of school in much of the country. With eager students once again filling classrooms, let’s focus on their teachers. Specifically, on the importance of defined benefit pensions to attract and retain teachers.
This school year started the way the last one ended: with teachers going on strike over pay and benefits. Teachers in Washington State followed their peers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona in striking and walking out of their schools over needed pay raises. It seems clear that many teachers have reached a breaking point and will no longer tolerate the years of education funding cuts, increasing class sizes, stagnant pay, and threats to their pensions. Last school year also saw teachers in Kentucky walk out over attacks on their pensions. Teachers in Oklahoma followed up their successful walk out by spending the summer defeating a number of state legislators, who had voted against pay increases for teachers, in primary elections.
Why are pensions so important for teachers? Pensions are a form of deferred compensation that teachers receive instead of higher pay during their careers in the classroom. On average, teachers receive lower pay than their similarly educated peers in the private sector. As noted above, teachers in many states have seen their pay stagnate, especially since the financial crisis. This has led to the strikes and walkouts of 2018, but it also makes their pensions all the more important.
It’s important to remember with teaching that there is a lot of churn in the early years of a teaching career. There are a decent number of people who will teach for a few years and then decide teaching isn’t for them and pursue jobs in other sectors. For the teachers who stay in the profession beyond a few years, most will make a career of teaching and teach for 20 years or more. Pensions encourage teachers to stick with teaching for the long term. This is also good for students because it keeps more experienced and more effective educators in the classroom. Teachers increase in effectiveness significantly during the first five years of teaching, so the more long-term, experienced teachers in the school, the higher the quality of overall teaching in that school.
Unfortunately, the number of people preparing to become teachers has decreased dramatically in recent years. Fewer people are majoring in education during college or attending teacher preparation programs. This poses a long-term challenge as there will be fewer people ready and willing to teach future generations. A number of states already face severe teacher shortages. As the unemployment rate continues to decline and more people find better paying jobs, the competition for teachers will only become more intense.
Once again, attacks on teacher pensions exacerbate this problem. The ability to earn a defined benefit pension is a major incentive for some people to become teachers and remain in the classroom. Attacks on teacher pensions not only remove this incentive, but also contribute to an overall atmosphere that is perceived as hostile to public education.
It’s clear that teachers want pensions. In states where teachers have a choice between a pension and an alternative retirement plan, teachers overwhelmingly choose pensions. Teachers want the security and reliability that comes with a pension. Parents and students should also want pensions for teachers because they keep experienced and effective teachers in the classroom. As a new school year begins, let’s recommit to protecting retirement security for educators because the future of the teaching profession may depend on it.