Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Do Pensions Cheat Teachers?

You'd think so, if you read this article in the Daily News, written by folks in reformy Bellwether Education Partners. Personally, I'm suspicious when reformies start looking out for us. Why are the same people who brought us junk science ratings, charters, and all sorts of other nonsense suddenly so interested in our welfare?

The argument is, essentially, that most teachers don't stay long enough to get vested, and that even those who do, may not make it:  

Even if a New York teacher does stay for 10 years, qualifying for some pension does not guarantee it will be a good pension. In New York, a young teacher must stay 24 years before her pension will finally be worth at least her own contributions into the plan plus interest.

I don't suppose anyone thinks ten years equals a good pension, so I'm not sure why that's a revelation. A problem with the second sentence is that is it's simply not true. Teachers can get their contributions back plus interest even if they aren't vested. Once people make assertions that are blatantly untrue, I find it hard to trust them at all. But that's just me.

A better argument is that they lose out on employer contributions. You retain them only if you stay longer, and you could argue that's inequitable. You could also argue, however, that healthy people pay too much for health insurance because they fail to get sick. That's what the Trumpies seem to be saying. In fact, you could make similar arguments against Social Security. Not everyone receives it, and in fact you DON'T get contributions back if you're unwise enough to say, die before you're eligible for payment.I suppose that could become a Trumpie argument for privatization.

On the other hand, you could argue that this system is designed to reward longevity. Is that a bad thing? It's hard for me to see why. You would hope that, with time, teachers acquire wisdom. You would also hope that, with said wisdom, teachers could enrich the lives of our children. Or you could ignore longevity altogether and worry more about how much money someone who quickly gives up teaching takes to the next gig.

The article seems to prefer defined contribution plans, like 401K, to defined benefit plans, like ours. Of course, even the inventor of the 401K plan says it was not designed to replace pensions. Companies favor them because they're off the hook for long-term benefits. But clearly people who receive defined benefits are better off than those who do not. You'll forgive me if I worry more about such people than, say, the Walmart family.

The superiority of defined benefits  applies even to recipients of Tier 6, which sucks compared to Tier 4. Do we want to encourage a gig economy, where people wake up, clean up after horses, drive for Uber, drop off their passengers, and then go to barista jobs to make mochachino for people who work for Bellwether? Do we want to rely on TFAs just passing through on their way to real careers? Or do we want dedicated educators teaching our kids?

In fact, if new teachers want to save more money, they have the option of contributing to TDA. Right now there's a fixed option that would give them 7%. That's 7% more of a guarantee than they'd get with a 401K, under which they could actually lose money. If they want to take more risk, there are a variety of funds they could choose.

Many new teachers do not give a second thought to saving money. I'd argue that forcing them to put away 6% of their pay, as they do in Tier 6, is doing them a service. Young people tend not to be focused on the long-term. In September I had to pretty much bully a young teacher into signing up for health benefits by persuading her she was not, in fact, Supergirl. The only reason I'm in TDA is because a former chapter leader urged me to start at 5%. He told me I wouldn't notice the difference. I didn't, and upped my contributions as I could afford them. I'm grateful for that. 

I'm pretty tired of reading idiotic studies suggesting that teachers don't improve after two years, implying we should therefore replace experienced teachers with newbies. I'm also tired of business owners trying to give the lowest common denominator to working people. I started this job working for $14,000 a year, and that year I turned down an offer of a higher paying job driving a FedEx truck. The first day I taught, a grizzled old vet told me to get out while I could and get a job in Long Island. I decided right then and there that I never wanted to be like that guy, and I'm happy to say that over thirty years later I'm not.

I love this job. I love the kids I teach and it's my honor and privilege to serve them. I could retire tomorrow if that weren't true, and the day that it isn't, I will do just that. But hell, I'm thankful I have a defined benefit plan. I'm very happy that if something were to happen to me after I retired, I can make sure my wife is taken care of. I do have money in TFA, and I've saved as much as I could. But I'm glad I don't have to depend on it.

As for Bellwether, if they're so concerned about teachers, I suggest they take a stand against the junk science ratings that freak us out on such a regular basis. I suggest they take a position against private and charter schools that undermine public education. I suggest, since they're so concerned about quality education, that they push to emulate Finland, where all teachers are unionized and the rich people have to send their kids to public schools just as the poor people do.

And I respectfully suggest, when that happens, education will improve. You'll see better teaching conditions for teachers, and therefore better learning conditions for students. As a direct result, the number of short-term teachers will decrease significantly. Then Bellwether won't need to worry so much about those who don't make pension.

I'm always available for consultation, if they're interested. 
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