We need more teachers. Retirement benefits help on that front

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The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education recently released a disturbing report on the state of teacher preparation. Between the 2008-09 and 2018-19 school years, the number of people who completed a teacher training program fell by almost a third. The analysis also revealed that the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in education fell by 22% between 2005-2006 and 2018-2019, even though the total number of bachelor’s degrees in all fields increased by 29%.

Worse, the country was already facing a teacher shortage, and school districts say the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. A nationwide survey by the EdWeek Research Center found that nearly half of district leaders and principals said they had struggled to hire enough full-time teachers this school year. Meanwhile, 52% of the K-12 workforce say they are stressed and burnt out, while more than a third (37%) say they are considering changing jobs.

The causes of the shrinking workforce in the education sector are many – from salary issues to teachers who do not feel respected. There will be no easy or quick fix. As policymakers across the country grapple with this growing problem, one factor that should not be ignored is the value of benefits, especially retirement benefits, in attracting and retaining teachers.

Retirement benefits are important to provide retirement security for teachers, but their value goes beyond that. Teachers’ salaries are often lower than those of others with similar credentials, and strong benefits can help close this pay gap. Additionally, pensions act as magnets to keep career teachers in the classroom. Retirement benefits are accrued over a worker’s career, with benefits paid out at the end of a career and paid out as a reliable monthly income that will not run out. In contrast, 401(k) style retirement plans don’t have this retention effect because there’s no incentive to stick around and earn that reliable monthly check in retirement.

In fact, an analysis by the National Institute on Retirement Security and the UC Berkeley Labor Center looked at teacher retirement benefits in six states — Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri and Texas. The study analyzed teacher turnover patterns and projected the final tenure of current teaching staff using the actuarial assumptions of the pension system. Next, the study compared current teachers’ benefits under the existing pension plan and a hypothetical 401(k) account with the same contribution rate as the pension.

The report found that not only do teachers perform better in retirement with a pension plan, but pensions are a key workforce retention tool. This is a key consideration as public schools in many communities struggle with teacher shortages.

Interestingly, the public understands how important benefits are for K-12 workforce recruitment and retention. A new national survey has found that the overwhelming majority of Americans say teacher benefits are magnets for attracting and retaining school staff and that these benefits should be funded and protected. Specifically, 92% of Americans indicated that health care benefits are a good tool for attracting and retaining teachers and school staff, while 91% agree that pensions are also helpful.

That same survey found that regardless of party, Americans are deeply concerned about teachers and education. Eighty-three percent expressed concern about staffing shortages in public schools, while 81 percent worry about burnout in the K-12 workforce. And 81% fear that fewer people will go to school.

As with so many other issues, the pandemic has brought to light the fundamental challenges facing our schools. Perhaps the silver lining will be an increased awareness of the value of the benefits available to teachers to keep them in the classroom and attract more young workers to the profession. While benefits are just one piece of a complex puzzle, there’s no question that pensions are an essential K-12 workforce management tool.


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