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Pension Reform . . . For The Children’s Sake

The state of Illinois, it turns out, has a teacher shortage; with a study commissioned by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of  Schools (IARSS) reporting that

Superintendents in 85% of the districts surveyed believed that they have either a major or a minor problem with teacher shortages.

Broken down, 32% deem the problem “serious” and 53% “minor”; however, when asked to forecast their expectations for 2020 and 2021, the percent predicting a “serious” problem grows to 51%.  In addition, 79% of responding superintendents also reported receiving significantly fewer qualified applicants than five years ago.  

However, only a minority (47%) of those superintendents are responding to their shortages by increasing base salaries; instead, they are working harder at recruiting (80%).  Shortages are primarily in the specialized fields, with 49% of reported new-opening school psychologists staffed by substitutes or someone without full qualifications, or left unfilled, and about one third of new openings in fields such as foreign languages, blind or deaf instruction, and librarians.  Virtually all superintendents report difficulties finding substitute teachers (97%), which is hardly a surprise given the nature of substitute teaching as a job with unreliable work hours (weren’t substitutes in the past often stay-at-home mothers who would get grandma to babysit sporadically?) and today’s strong job market offering more choices.

Note that 61% of surveyed superintendents responded to the survey, with rates of 76% – 78% for downstate districts and a markedly smaller response, only 36%, suburban and exurban Chicagoland.  And there are clear regional differences, too:  only 9% of greater Chicago area superintendents reported a “serious” problem, compared to 37% – 41% in the other regions, and only 42% reported significantly fewer qualified applicants than 5 years ago, compared to 78% – 94% in the other regions.

According to The Center Square, the state is attempting to combat this problem in several ways:  first, lawmakers have fixed teacher starting pay at $40,000 per year (with a phase-in); in addition, they will be funding grants for more analysis of the issue and for individual schools’ teacher retention programs.  As a side note, it seems short-sighted to look purely at teacher recruitment and retention without acknowledging that the entire state has been losing population for the past five years, and those who are leaving for other states tend to be more educated, on average, than those who stay.

Now, as it happens, teacher pensions are expressly designed to lock then into their jobs.  For the older teachers under the Tier 1 benefits, they do not qualify for the generous early retirement benefits until they’ve reached 30 years of service.  Tier 2 teachers do not vest in benefits at all until they’ve reached 10 years of service.  In either case, their benefits are fixed based on their pay upon termination, even if it’s multiple decades before retirement; due to the effect of inflation/pay increases, this has a significant effect on retirement benefits.  (In contrast, of course, 401(k) plans and Social Security both have indexation, in the former implicitly through investment returns and directly calculated in the latter.)

But recall that teachers hired after 2010 receive the much-less-generous Tier 2 benefits in which their contributions serve to subsidize their older colleagues, or only begin to provide meaningful benefits if they stick it out for the long term.  In addition, since, unlike teachers in 35 other states, they do not participate in Social Security, they face anti-windfall Social Security benefit reductions.  And the younger they are now, and the more work years they have ahead of them, the greater the degree to which they’ll be affected by the pensionable pay cap which takes affect at lower and lower pay levels (relative to inflation) each year.

Maybe teachers are not educated enough about pensions to know any better.  Maybe they simply assume that their retirement benefits will be generous because they read that, despite pension underfunding, politicians promise day-in and day-out that their pensions are inviolable.  But maybe the low Tier 2 benefits (and distrust by even Tier 1 participants that they’ll get what’s been promised to them) has a real effect on exactly the teacher recruitment and retention that everyone’s worrying about.

Now, so far Governor JB Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan seem immune to pleas of fiscal responsibility.  But would their ears be somewhat less deaf if we told them that, so long as Tier 1 pensions for city and state workers are so generous, with cost-of-living adjustments that rise every year at a fixed 3% even when inflation is far below that, with young normal retirement ages and even younger unreduced early retirement ages for those with sufficient years of service, that the city and state’s contributions can’t even keep up with new benefit accruals, and the pension debt continues to grow, with the current contribution schedule, it is not possible to engage in the work of restoring retirement benefits for the post-2010 Tier 2 group to a level that’s reasonable and appropriate?

After all, as things stand, the state appears to think of its pensions as, more or less, a pay-as-you-go system:  money comes in as employee and employer contributions and goes out to pay benefits, rather than building reserves to pay future benefits while past asset accumulations pay benefits.  And only when past accruals are funded sustainably can competitive benefits be restored for newer and future employees — not, of course, in the same form as for the Tier 1 group, but in a sustainable fashion, for instance, through a combination of participating in Social Security (as, again, is the case for the teachers of 35 other states) and adopting a risk-sharing defined benefit program (following the model of 99%-funded Wisconsin) as a supplemental benefit.

If Illinois leaders aren’t willing to reform pensions for the sake of taxpayers otherwise left holding the bag, or state residents who will go without services as ever-greater sums of money are spent on pensions, would they be willing to do so for the sake of the children who suffer from teacher shortages?

After all, isn’t “it’s for the children” exactly what those politicians tell voters when they want us to do as we’re told?

What do you think?   Share your thoughts at JaneTheActuary.com!

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