Archive for Thursday, March 15, 2012

Many teacher pension funds underfunded

March 15, 2012


As a new generation of teachers replaces retiring baby boomers, financially strapped states face a quandary — what to do about teacher pensions.

This map shows the number of states with pension plans considered underfunded. (Source: National Council on Teacher Quality)

This map shows the number of states with pension plans considered underfunded. (Source: National Council on Teacher Quality)

A majority of states' teacher retirement funds are underfunded, some significantly below rates considered solvent, according to a recent analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a research and policy group that seeks to improve the quality of teachers. The situation has stoked political fights in statehouses across the country as legislators weigh options such as moving teachers from a traditional defined benefit pension to a 401(k)-style plan, raising the retirement age or making teachers wait a decade to be vested in their plans.

The shortfalls are reflective of what's happening with public state and local pensions nationwide, with teacher pensions included in a more than $660 billion shortfall in what's been put aside for such retirement benefits and what is owed, the Pew Center on the States has estimated. Many states offer separate pension plans for teachers, while others include them in broader plans that cover other government workers.

What's happening with public pensions is mirroring private industry. Companies have been abandoning traditional benefits because of the cost and the risk, and replacing them with 401(k) type plans, which are more portable but transfer more of the risk to the worker.

In education circles, the issue takes on special significance because of its impact on kids. Pension policies affect the ability of districts to hire and retain teachers, and funds used to shore up pension funds can mean tax hikes or come at the expense of other areas like education. As legislators weigh what to do, an estimated 1 million teachers are expected to retire within the next decade. The economic downturn has helped fueled the pensions shortfalls; states in better economic times expanded benefits that today are difficult to pay for and sometimes opted not to make payments into the systems.

One current pension battleground is Kansas, where Republican Gov. Sam Brownback wants to transfer new teachers and other government workers to a 401(k)-style plan. The Kansas Public Employees Retirement System projects an $8.3 billion gap between anticipated revenues and benefits promised to workers through 2033.

In California, where the teacher pension fund has more than $50 billion in unfunded liabilities, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has presented a pension-reform plan that would increase the retirement age for new, non-public safety employees like teachers to 67. It would also require employees to contribute to at least 50 percent of their retirement costs and move new public employees into a hybrid plan that blends a traditional pension with 401(k)-style program.

Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, announced a plan earlier this month in Alabama to set the retirement age for new teachers and others in the state retirement system at 62. Currently, teachers can retire in their 40s.

Teacher unions in statehouses are pushing back against many of these efforts, especially proposals to move from defined benefit pensions to the 401(k)-style plans. They say the strains are exaggerated by critics with an ideological agenda and that the pensions are an important part of compensation for a well-educated population that's underpaid. They also argue that defined benefit plans are a recruitment tool that helps districts attract good teachers and maintain a stable work force.

Unions also contend that states might not realize the savings they expect by shifting to a 401(k)-style plan. They point to Alaska, where the legislature in 2005 took the state from a defined benefit program to defined contribution. The projected savings have not yet been realized, and the state has seen its unfunded pension liability rise to an obligation estimated at about $11 billion.

James Testerman, director of collective bargaining and member advocacy for the National Education Association, said for teachers, the issue is particularly emotional. "One of the promises made to them, if they contributed to every paycheck from the very first day that they started working with children, was that they would be provided a modest and secure retirement," he said.

But, not everyone agrees that traditional pension plans are a good mechanism for ensuring quality teachers are in the classroom. Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said the pension systems overly reward early retirees and do little to attract and retain effective teachers.

She said the 401(k)-style plans are financially more affordable than defined benefit plans, and are attractive to younger teachers who might just want to teach for a few years or eventually move to another state.

"I think they've operated under a model where salaries have stayed lower because of these great pension benefits, but in the 21st century across most professions and industries, people are much more mobile. They don't necessarily plan to be in one profession or job for their entire career. So, a pension benefit that isn't portable, combined with a lower starting salary, I think to the current generation that's entering the work force, is much less appealing than it used to be," Jacobs said.

Despite the financial strains on the systems, much of the nation's public teaching force has retirement benefits considered generous in the private sector. In all but six states, it's possible to begin collecting a full retirement before age 65, and three states — Montana, Alabama and Kentucky — allow teachers to do so in their 40s, according to the council's analysis.

Typically, a pension plan is considered healthy if it meets an 80 percent funded benchmark. More than 30 states have pension plans for teachers funded below that benchmark, with nine of them funded below 60 percent — including Illinois, Rhode Island and West Virginia, which are funded below 50 percent, according to the analysis.

In New Mexico, for example, new teachers can start collect a full retirement as early as age 52, which costs on average an additional $734,000 in pay-outs per retiree until the retiree reaches age 65, according to the council's analysis. The state's teacher pension fund is a little more than 60 percent funded and has $5.9 billion in liabilities, said New Mexico state Sen. George Munoz, chairman of a legislative study committee that examined his state's pension systems.

Sixteen states now make teachers wait 10 years to be vested in their pension plan. A few, including Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire and New Jersey have raised the retirement age to fully collect the benefit to 65 or older. Others are slowing the cost of living raises for retirees and asking teachers and employers to contribute more toward their retirement costs.

Michael Podgursky, an economics professor at the University of Missouri who serves on the council's board, said teaching is a job that can physically be done into one's 60s.

"It doesn't make sense in an occupation like teaching to have such early retirement ages," Podgursky said.

In Kentucky, Sharron Oxendine, president of the Kentucky Education Association, said the ability to fully retire before 65 is an important benefit to teachers in Kentucky, and that more than 90 percent of retirees stay in the state.

"When you have the baby boomers who are retiring, that's a really important issue for them, is being able to take care of their parents or other family members and that's an option for them. Is that 27-year retirement going to provide them a quality of life that they've been used to? Absolutely not, in more times than not, those retirees actually go back and find additional work is some other sector," Oxendine said.


Calijhawk 5 years, 10 months ago

This reporter is kidding, right?? REALLY?

The teacher's pensions, combined with the pensions of other unionized local and state government workers are the primary CAUSE of the budget shortfalls. Here in California, this state pays more money to teachers who aren't working than we do to those who are. These unions contribute hundreds of millions to Democratic candidates, who in turn approve these unreal pensions. The taxpayer never gets a seat at the table.

It is as my second grade teacher taught us back in Emporia:
Sixteen cats, sixteen rats Sixteen dirty Democrats; Believe the cats and trust the rats before the dirty Democrats.

Thanks, Miss Norton!

jhawkinsf 5 years, 10 months ago

And while Lawrence strives to emulate the worst of California, the rest of the state is trying to copy the worst of the Taliban. Perhaps our once great state will be great again, but only if we look inwards for our inspiration.

tomatogrower 5 years, 10 months ago

A few years back a Republican governor and former actor was governor of California, and left the state in a fiscal mess. Jerry Brown, a Democrat came in a cleaned it up. A few more years later, another Republican and former actor was governor, and guess who the voters of California hired to clean up the mess?

As for Kansas, despite the fact that we have had a few moderate Democrats for governor, this state is really run by Republicans. Republicans who set up the KPERS plan, and who also benefit from it. Republicans who during boom times, still didn't fully pay the states fair share, despite the fact the workers were paying their share. Who are the rats?

jhawkinsf 5 years, 10 months ago

California has been a mess for a long time. Much of that mess can be attributed to Prop. 13. To suggest either Republicans or Democrats since then have been either responsible for the subsequent mess or any perceived clean up would be a misinterpretation of what is going on there. BTW - The Republican governor that you speak of, the former actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had he run for governor of Kansas, would likely be considered a fairly liberal Democrat.

tomatogrower 5 years, 10 months ago

Well, he could have easily joined the Democratic party. He married into a family of Democrats after all.

And it was the Republicans in Kansas who set up KPERS and it's the Republicans in Kansas who never paid the state's fair share, moderate or extreme right. Who are the deadbeats?

jhawkinsf 5 years, 10 months ago

My point was that Democrats in California don't necessarily resemble Democrats in Kansas. The same is true of Republicans. The policies of Schwarzenegger would be more closely associated with Democrats here (pro-choice, etc.). If it's his party you wish to blame for the problems that happened during his tenure, that's fine. However, if it's his policies that you are critical of, then the policies of Kansas Democrats should receive equal scrutiny. BTW - The legislature that Arnold had to work with is one of the most liberal Democratic party controlled legislatures ever. Do they deserve some of the blame/credit, depending on what you are attributing to them.

notasheeple 5 years, 10 months ago

Bottom line--these pensions will not be paid as promised. Twill be an Exponential Fail.

Matthew Herbert 5 years, 10 months ago

Here's an idea- how about allowing teachers to opt out of KPERS? Some of us believe that the federal gov should not serve as our investment banker and don't appreciate involuntarily losing 3% of our check each month when we know the money won't be there for us in the end.

Terry Sexton 5 years, 10 months ago

Sixteen repubs, two-year terms crazy teapub pachyderms; Beware the words & hateful rants Of mean & greedy elephants.

rtwngr 5 years, 10 months ago

These are what you call "unfunded" liabilities. It's kind of like Greece.

tomatogrower 5 years, 10 months ago

Exactly. During the Graves administration they had the money to fully fund it. Why didn't they?

Richard Heckler 5 years, 10 months ago

Best be careful....

Your Money, Their Pockets


Seldom in our 230-odd years as a country have Congress and the White House had the fortitude to impose on American bankers and financiers a set of regulations sufficiently stringent to prevent them from pushing us into destructive panics and recessions. And once again Washington may be demonstrating its lack of backbone.

As Simon Johnson and James Kwak recount in “13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown,” the struggle to keep bankers in check goes back to Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, with results that have usually been mixed. Given the leeway to undermine the economy, bankers and financiers have done just that.

To put it bluntly, as this book does: the efficient-market hypothesis does not work. It never has. Markets are not self-­correcting. Left to their own devices, bankers at the biggest institutions can’t seem to stop themselves from speculating with borrowed money until they inevitably crash the system.

Johnson, a professor of entrepreneurship at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management, and Kwak, a former consultant for ­McKinsey & Company, tell this story in matter-of-fact prose. Even their discussion of derivatives is accessible to ordinary readers (most of the time). Their conclusion: during only one period over the past two centuries was government regulation sufficiently restrictive to rein in Wall Street and the bankers. “The result,” they say, “was the safest banking system that America has known in its history.” Johnson and Kwak are referring to the 50 years from the 1930s through the 1970s.

Ronald Reagan, of course, brought us back to the efficient-market hypothesis with its faith in laissez-faire — a faith embraced, to one degree or another, by all of Reagan’s successors as well. Who needs government oversight when markets correct themselves, they agreed, and so they stood by as regulations disappeared or were canceled. Even the Obama administration, seeking to revive regulation, has not easily shaken off the old faith in markets — and “13 Bankers” needles the president’s team on this point.

For example, the authors skewer Lawrence H. Summers...

William Weissbeck 5 years, 10 months ago

Wait a second. The unions in Kansas have no power, never have. They aren't threatening legislators or school boards. Teachers can't strike. The pensions were promises made based on fuzzy math by legislatures past that didn't care. When it comes to budgets, legislatures tended to believe in unicorns. When a private company blows up like this, it closes or files BK and screws the workers. The Feds have a program to pick up the pieces. And if the private employer really mismanages the pension, there could be criminal issues. These pensions were promises made. It's not the teachers' fault. You can't say after the fact that they are getting something they didn't deserve. We have to face the uncomfortable fact that our legislators as agents of the people (us) made promises that we may have to honor. Otherwise we start down a slippery slope whereby contracts and laws can just be rewritten when they become inconvenient. At one time, not so long ago, everyone hoped to get a pension (not play the stock market). The idea of a government job was to accept less in pay in exchange for security (states don't go BK) and a secure pension. Just because the private job market has gone all to hell, doesn't mean we should throw the public workers under the bus too.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.