Teacher Pensions: Let’s Not Become Illinois
When talking about pension reform, it’s easy to lose sight of the real, human consequences of the decisions policymakers make.
Jessica Canale is an art teacher in North Saint Louis City. She commutes every day from O’Fallon, Illinois. While it might seem like a trivial decision to choose between working on the east or west side of the Mississippi, in actuality, when it comes to the money that will be available when she retires, it matters a great deal.
In January, Dick Ingram, executive director of the Illinois Teachers Retirement System (TRS) explained just how bad Illinois’ fiscal position has become. In order to deliver promised benefits, the state has divided teachers into two categories—Tier I and Tier II.
Tier I teachers will enjoy promised benefits, while Tier II teachers, those hired after 2010, will receive greatly reduced benefits. According to Ingram, “Tier II is designed to help solve the financial problems faced by TRS and the other systems by reducing pension benefits for these new members. Lower pensions means reduced long-term costs for the state.”
But “reducing pension benefits” is an understatement. In order to pay for Tier I pensions, Tier II teachers and administrators will have to contribute 9.4 percent of their salary while only receiving 7 percent toward their retirement. No wonder Jessica would rather commute to Saint Louis than give 2.4 percent of her compensation to older teachers.
But Missouri is not much better. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, Missouri’s pension plan earned a grade of D-.
In his 2013 policy study on public employee pensions, AEI resident scholar Andrew Biggs called the situation in Missouri a “looming crisis.” Luckily, he offered several suggestions:
- Promote better accounting, which will show the extent to which plans are underfunded.
- Attract and retain quality public employees like Jessica by changing existing plan structures to either a defined contribution or a cash balance approach.
- Give employees more freedom to choose the retirement plan that works for them.
As Show-Me Institute analysts have continuously argued, there are solutions to Missouri’s pension problems. For teachers like Jessica, Missouri has to do better.