Could pension reform help fix the teacher shortage?

Colorado has a real and growing teacher shortage, and the problem is especially acute in rural areas. The Denver Post recently wrote a long story on this issue.

It’s a good read, but it has a big hole in it.

There’s the usual tired, trite jeremiad from our least favorite ideologue, State Sen. Mike Merrifield (people don’t want to teach because those “special-place-in-hell” reformers bash teachers).  There’s the obvious points about new college graduates not wanting to live in small towns (unless they’re near ski resorts). Oh, and if you care to believe the National Education Association, teacher salaries in Colorado have fallen by 7.7 percent in the past decade.

The story’s news peg appears to be legislation that would require the state to figure out why people aren’t entering the teaching profession, and why so many who do enter are leaving after a short time. People already have their set-in-stone opinions on the matter, but what the hell, let’s form a committee to study the matter. How visionary. How courageous.

We’re willing to bet that the joint Colorado Department of  and Department of Higher Education will ignore or gloss over the glaring issue of gross inequities in Colorado PERA, the state pension program that provides teachers (and other state workers) with retirement income.

As we’ve written repeatedly (here, for example), PERA, like teacher pension funds across the country, uses a backloaded accrual system that severely disadvantages young teachers. It doesn’t have to be this way, but with our political system’s growing dysfunction, it’s hard to see how we’ll change this anytime soon.

Imagine, though, a fairer system, that smoothed pension accrual across the years, and put more money into current salaries and less into retirement. As a somewhat wonky Manhattan Institute report proposed:

…the heavy investment in retirement—only acquired by those teachers who remain in the classroom until the plan’s arbitrary normal retirement eligibility threshold—has artificially reduced teacher salaries in many school systems. If offered the opportunity, many teachers would likely prefer a system in which they took home a larger portion of their compensation than they do today.

If you want to read more on the issue, this piece by Chad Aldeman is a good primer. As is the video embedded below.

Better pay today and pension plans that treat young teachers fairly might not be a silver bullet that solves the teacher shortage, but, to mix weaponry metaphors, it’s another arrow in the quiver.

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