More Pensions

AFTie Ed responds to this post. I’ll post a more thorough response later but for now a couple of quick thoughts. First, the WV plan Ed cites is not as cut and dry as he makes it out though it was hardly a success. Second, as I’ve said, I believe any reform must honor commitments that have already been made, teachers are public servants. That’s ultimately a value judgment but an important one, I’d argue. Third, there is a bigger finance problem out there than the AFTies apparently want to let on and if left unattended it could be like the S&L issue but with a larger political backlash — and will result in breaking faith with older and retired teachers. And, there are a lot of perverse and misaligned incentives in the current system for individuals and school systems (e.g. benefit lock for older teachers, school systems making decisions that involve long-term cost shifting) Fourth, to assume that shifting to a defined contribution plan from a defined benefits plan means shifting from generous benefits to no benefits is too reductionist, there are myriad policy options in between. And I’m certainly not an advocate for any sort of wholesale rollback of benefits for teachers.* Finally, while I do think this is related to larger teacher quality and labor market issues, it certainly won’t solve them alone. But because a public finance fix is coming, it makes sense to ensure that it leverages solutions to education’s human capital problem as effectively as possible.

As an aside, on the benefits issue, there is growing pressure on health care coverage for teachers. Seems to me that there might be a grand-bargain in here somewhere. I’ve never completely understood why we don’t do more to aggregate, intrastate, health care for teachers to increase leverage and why the unions don’t push harder for that. Bargaining it district by district, as is most often the case, seems needlessly inefficient for them politically and for their members financially. I know it results in some short term victories, especially when times are tight and districts need less transparent ways of giving “raises” to teachers at the bargaining table but it doesn’t seem like a good strategy over time. Instead, seems like it would make more sense to have a state plan, or a menu of state plans, for teachers. And as I understand it, the teachers unions want more uniformity anyway — at least when it comes to public charter schools!

*This could end up being like the debate over teacher pay where anyone who is not for across-the-board raises gets attacked for wanting to keep pay low. When in fact, many people like me want to pay teachers more but also differently. Same dynamic applies here: Seeking some reform of the pension system is not axiomatically synonymous with wanting to eliminate retirement benefits for teachers. Both are more about modernizing policies that are mismatched to today’s conditions.

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