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Examiner
  • Bob Buckley: Teacher retirement system isn't broken

  • While riding the exercycle at the gym last week, I struck up a conversation with a retired school teacher who used to be a neighbor of one of my partners. We had a pleasant conversation about my law partners, and then the conversation turned to the subject of retired teachers.

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  • While riding the exercycle at the gym last week, I struck up a conversation with a retired school teacher who used to be a neighbor of one of my partners. We had a pleasant conversation about my law partners, and then the conversation turned to the subject of retired teachers. She had taught for 25 years and was enjoying her teacher’s retirement. I commented that the teacher’s retirement in Missouri was pretty good, which provoked quite an outburst about the Missouri legislature trying to change the teacher’s retirement system in the last legislative session.
    This particular teacher was incensed that they would try to change the retirement system, so I did a little research and discovered some interesting things. First of all, there are two education pension funds: the Public School Retirement System, and the Education Employee Retirement System (PSRS/PEERS). The first fund is for certified educators, and the second one is for all other employees of public education.
    The board of PSRS/PEERS manages $32 billion in assets. It is the 45th largest pool in the United States. According to its websites 81 percent of its liabilities, that is, future promises to pay retirement benefits, is funded. In comparison, Illinois has approximately 30 percent of its future promises to pay funded. The teachers pay 14.5 percent of their income to the retirement system, which is matched by the school district, but they do not contribute to Social Security unless they have other income from outside sources. The contribution rate for the participants is determined by the board of the retirement system.
    A senator from St. Louis offered several bills in the last legislative session tampering with the retirement plans. One of the bills restricted the power of the board of the retirement funds to set the contribution rate. Another bill required that the funds be 100 percent funded in five years. Another bill changed the retirement plan for new teachers.
    The Missouri Retired Teachers Association (MRTA) took aggressive action to stop the legislation. More than 29,000 people signed a petition and delivered it to Governor Nixon and to members of the Senate Pension Committee, asking them not to pass this legislation. Their efforts were successful. The Retired Teachers’ Association is obviously a powerful group with more than 22,000 members.
    Missouri currently ranks 48th in the nation in teacher salaries. According to the MRTA website, Missouri ranks 41st in pupil spending, yet Missouri continues to produce quality education. According to MRTA, “Missouri’s decent and hard-earned retirement benefits for educators are the number one incentive for experienced educators to stay in the classroom.”
    I have often wondered why we pay our public school teachers so poorly. The school districts are limited in their sources of funding. Local funding comes through the property tax levy, but districts are then at the mercy of the state legislature for the rest of their funding. A hallmark of public education is the control of the local district by the elected school board, but when funding is controlled by state politicians, oftentimes education is not a priority. Public education is the backbone of our educational system, yet we are declining in world ranking. It is well known that American students do not compare favorably to students around the world. According to one rating organization, the United States ranked 18th in reading scores, 29th in science and 35th in math.
    Page 2 of 2 - There is much discussion about public education today, and many politicians love to point the fingers at teachers’ unions and administrators as the cause of our educational decline. The truth is that wealthy outside interests are pushing an agenda that undermines public education. Such concepts as school choice measures, open enrollments and vouchers to allow students to attend private schools are a part of this agenda. Meanwhile, the state foundation formula for public education remains grossly underfunded by the Missouri legislature.
    Perhaps the attacks on the teachers’ retirement system are also part of this agenda. Why anyone would want to try and fix the teachers’ retirement system that is not broken remains a mystery. Perhaps, the ultimate goal of the politicians is to change one of the things that makes it worthwhile to pursue a career in education – an excellent retirement plan – as a method of attacking public education.
    Are the politicians thinking about the kids?
    Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at bbuckley@wagblaw.com
     
     
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