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It is easy to underestimate the total value of teacher pay because a lot of it comes after retirement, in the form of pension payments.
Teachers aren't lavishly paid, but it's easy to underestimate the true value of a teacher's total compensation. For full-career teachers, each year of teaching comes with a significant promise toward a financially secure retirement.
This lesson explains how teacher pension systems work, how they are different from Social Security, how to compare them with other retirement systems, why older teachers stop agonizing about retirement at age 62, and why younger teachers will agonize about it until they are 65.
A teacher's total pay is better than it looks. (Unless something goes terribly wrong, that is. It could. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.)
Teachers' pensions in most states, including California, are defined benefit systems. After retiring, teachers receive pension payments in a manner defined by the rules of the pension system.
Most workers pay into Social Security. California government workers pay into CALPERS. California teachers pay into STRS. (It's pronounced "stirs").The pension system for teachers is a defined benefit system. While working, you pay the system. After you retire, the system pays you. How much? It depends. The amount you get out of a defined benefit system in retirement does not necessarily reflect the amount you pay in. Instead, the amount that the system pays out is determined by a formula.
For public school teachers in California, the pension formula depends on just three things: Your end-of-career pay, the number of years you have been teaching in California public schools, and your age at retirement:
California’s state pension system for teachers was created in 1918, long before Social Security was founded in 1935. In 1950, states were given the option to merge their pension systems for public employees into the Social Security system. California and 13 other states, in whole or in part, have opted not to do so, instead maintaining separate retirement systems for public school teachers.
Teachers in California don’t pay social security taxes on their paychecks or receive social security benefits. Instead, they pay into STRS, which stands for the State Teacher Retirement System. The acronym is treated as a name, pronounced “stirs”.
STRS is superficially similar to Social Security. In both systems, a portion of gross wages is withheld from each paycheck. Both systems make payments to members after retirement. In both systems, your age at retirement matters. You get more money if you defer retirement and retire later.
There are important differences, though. The Social Security system describes itself as an anti-poverty program. It doesn't differentiate the age at which you make your money, the kind of work you do, the state you live in, or the number of years you have worked in a particular profession.
These are central factors in the California STRS system because it has a particular mission: it is designed to provide a strong life-long pension for those make teaching in California’s public schools their life's work. According to STRS, about half of California's teachers stay in the profession for at least 30 years.
Public school teachers in California join the CALSTRS pension system automatically with their first paycheck. For as long as they work as a teacher in a California public school (pre-K through community college), a portion of gross pay (about 10%) is pulled out as a required contribution to the system. After retirement, teachers stop receiving paychecks from their school district and start receiving payments from STRS, instead. (Confusingly, STRS calls these after-retirement payments benefits. It’s easier and more accurate to think of them as income, as tax authorities do.)
California's teacher pension system has gone through significant changes over time in order to ensure that the system is financially sound. Among the changes, the retirement terms for teachers were adjusted to make it a bit less attractive to retire early. For teachers hired after Jan 1, 2014, the system is described as 2% at 62 because those who retire at age 62 (generally) receive an annual retirement benefit for life equal to 2% of their final salary times the number of years served.
For teachers hired prior to Jan 1, 2014, the system is described as 2% at 60. The system is similar, but more generous — it offers full lifetime retirement benefits earlier. In both cases, the system strongly rewards teachers who delay retirement and continue teaching longer.
The chart below shows lifetime compensation for “Bee,” a hypothetical teacher who begins teaching in Oakland Unified School District in 2022 at age 29 (the STRS average age). Over time, she earns degrees that boost her pay. She retires at 65 (the pension-maximizing age), and lives to 91 (the STRS forecast average for female teachers. For men the average is 88.)
The point of a defined benefit pension is security. Pensioners know they will receive predictable, ongoing money in retirement for as long as they live, even if the market swoons. As of 2021, the California STRS record for most years of pension payments was set by a teacher who lived to 108.
The chart above shows when teacher pension payments are delivered. It’s worth understanding when they are earned.
Teachers qualify to receive a pension in retirement only if they work in the system for at least five years. Each service year thereafter affects the calculation of their annual pension in retirement. Teachers are eligible to retire at age 55, but the system is set up to encourage long service, especially from age 56 to 65. Teachers qualify for a big portion of their pension in those years:
Using the same assumptions, the next chart puts it all together. For each year that Bee works, this chart shows how much she receives in salary (teal), how much she pays in to STRS (yellow), the incremental cumulative lifetime value of expected future pension payments (orange), and the one-time value of each pension payment she skips by continuing to work (grey).
As mentioned above, the teacher pension system works differently for teachers hired before Jan 1, 2014 than it does for those hired after that date. For those teachers, the system is known as 2% at 60. There are several important differences.
Pension systems are built on some critical assumptions. Will the number of working teachers increase? How many years will teachers work? How long will they live? How will prices change over time? Will invested assets grow in value? By how much and when? Will policies change?
For decades, California’s pension systems seemed magical. California was growing, with young teachers joining in droves. Teachers were required to contribute just six percent of their wages toward their retirement system, but the math worked. STRS had amassed a big investment fund that was delivering remarkable earnings, especially from tech investments. In the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, California's public pension systems appeared to be overfunded, so the legislature generously changed the math to create the 2% at 60 system, lowering retirement age requirements and raising benefits.
Big mistake. On cue, the boom went bust.
The charts above probably seem out of balance, right? How can such small contributions (the small yellow bars at the bottom) balance the large pension payments represented by the orange bars?
They can’t. The STRS system relies on money from four sources:
There’s no free lunch here. Money that school districts must spend on pensions for retired teachers is money they can't spend on other priorities — including educating today’s students.
For two decades after the tech bust, even as the stock market grew, the STRS investment portfolio fell behind, gradually losing its capacity to sustain the state’s obligations to teachers. The STRS account’s funded ratio shrank from better than 100% funded to about two-thirds funded, and financial experts (actuaries) warned that, without action, the fund would be depleted by 2046. A pension fund can weather bad years if it is healthy. An unhealthy pension fund is a time bomb, just waiting for the next bad year to turn into a disaster.
As one of his final acts in office, Governor Jerry Brown pushed through a 32-year plan to defuse the pension time bomb. The plan clarified the state’s commitment to serve as the funder of last resort, but in exchange it required higher contributions from both teachers and school districts. The plan is expected to bring the system to full funding by 2046.
Higher state and local contributions can improve the financial health of the teacher pension system, which is great. But the money isn't coming from a magic well — it's mostly coming from school district budgets.
The legislature broke the teacher pension system in the dot-com era
If you hear that the state budget is going up, but your school is making cuts, now you know a big part of the reason why: the legislature broke the teacher pension system in the dot-com era, didn't fix it for ages, and now the bill is past due.
This video from EdSource.org does a great job of summarizing the issues.
In 2020-21, the market delivered extraordinary returns for the STRS account. Even the bad year of 2021-22 didn’t wipe out the good news:
In late 2022, the stock market continued to slide and inflation hammered the value of the system's bond portfolio. The fund includes many long-term investments that can help it weather short-term downturns, but these investments are illiquid, which means they can't easily be sold to make pension payments. If the overall holdings of the system shrink too much, it can't safely hold as many long-term investments. To be safe and effective, defined-benefit pension funds need to be big.
The Social Security system is important to many teachers because, in the course of their career, many have other jobs. A person who works part of a career in STRS employment and part of a career in "regular" employment, paying Social Security taxes, may qualify for retirement benefits from both systems.
There's a wrinkle. As described above, the STRS system is set up to strongly reward high end-of-career earnings. The Social Security system is set up in a roughly opposite way; it is progressively indexed to provide extra support to those with low total earnings. This has a practical impact: If you pay in only a small amount to Social Security, the system assumes that you need more support.
To prevent abuse of this progressive indexing, Social Security has a windfall elimination provision that discounts STRS receipts. The interaction of these systems is complex, and some argue that the Social Security rules amount to a "hero's penalty" that discourages work.
Some of the complexity exists to address what-if questions that represent less-common but real cases, such as the interaction of STRS with Social Security. There are many others. What if a teacher is called to military service? What if a teacher needs to take time out for cancer treatments? What happens if a teacher is accepted for an overseas fellowship? What if a teacher's district wants to offer an incentive for a teacher to retire early?
To address issues like these, the system has to embrace some complexity. In 2021, CALSTRS had about 1,200 employees to support a system of nearly a million educators, about half of them active. The following video explains some of the challenges, such as systemic vulnerability to abuses like spiking, in which teachers or employers exaggerage end-of-service payments for the purpose of driving up pension obligations.
Some argue that the best "fix" for the teacher pension system would be to abandon it in favor of a defined contribution system, the structure overwhelmingly used in the private sector. In a defined contribution system, there is no central retirement fund. Instead, individuals are responsible for saving and investing in their own retirement. Usually, employers encourage employees to invest for retirement by matching the funds they commit to their retirement account, with the requirement that money not be withdrawn until retirement. These retirement savings accounts are allowed to grow tax-free until withdrawn at a specified age.
In the private sector, this kind of savings instrument is called an IRA or 401(k) account. Similar savings accounts exist to help educators save for retirement — they are known with names like 403(b), 457(b), Roth 403(b), and Roth 457(b). In California, teachers can use these accounts as supplementary ways to save for retirement. Some states, including Florida, Alaska, Washington, and Kansas have transitioned away from defined benefit systems for teachers, making these saving accounts the primary retirement security system for teachers.
Defined contribution systems generally don't include age-based incentives for employees to continue working — or, for that matter, to stop working. For arguments in favor of defined-benefit systems for teachers, read this analysis by the Fordham Foundationof the pension system in Los Angeles Unified. For the opposite view, read the analysis of theBerkeley Labor Center.
A central concern of each of any retirement system is risk. Is there enough invested to weather bad financial conditions? With the changes made in 2014, California's teacher retirement system seems likely to be on a long, slow path to sustainability. Unless, of course, something goes badly wrong.
California's STRS system is huge, but it is far from the only one. In 2021, the US Census Bureau estimated that there were 299 state-level pension systems for public employees and 5,977 local systems. Collectively, these systems manage the investment of trillions of dollars in pension savings.
The scenario that keeps economists and bankers up at night is the prospect of collective risk. Adverse market conditions don't just affect one pension system at a time — in a truly awful downturn, many public pension systems would be stressed at the same time. Some would not make it. The Social Security system looms large in conversations about the financial risks of retirement insurance systems. Actuaries warn that the system has been out of balance since 2010.
Pension systems serve different stakeholders in different ways. California's system works mainly to the advantage of full-career teachers, especially those that start young, earn lots of graduate credits, and retire at the optimal age. In a 2021 review of state teacher pension systems, Bellwether Partners ranked California's system among the ten worst in America.
An out-of-balance pension system can seem like an abstraction, but it matters a lot. The California STRS pension system went from fully funded to dangerously out of whack in about two decades. Putting it back on a path to sustainability will divert huge amounts of money from school budgets and government services for decades more. The obligation to rebalance the pension system also reduces funds available for other growing costs, like health care costs and deferred maintenance costs for aging school buildings. A 2018 analysis by WestEd argued that the combination of these factors amounts to a Silent Recession.
This post concludes the "Teachers" chapter of Ed100. The overall structure of Ed100 is "Education is Students and Teachers spending Time in Places for Learning with the Right Stuff in a System with Resources for Success. So Now What?"
In the next chapter, we tackle the educational implications of life's most precious resource: Time.
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