[One of the many things influencing this post – Can States Escape Pension Obligations Through Bankruptcy, Ed Week]
[Also, it’s pretty clear to me that there are two very different conversations around education reform that are getting conflated in some very dangerous ways. One conversation is a pedagogical debate. One conversation is a labor debate. This post is clearly about the labor debate.]
I admit, I find much of the narrative about public school teachers to be bewildering these days. How people who have spent their careers trying to help kids have become the villains in the public discourse is beyond me. Lately, folks like Chris Christie and Michelle Rhee are talking about how unions are bankrupting states because of defined-benefit pension plans.
There is a legitimate debate to be had in this country around defined-benefit and defined-contribution retirement plans. As a nation, we need to address how we deal with retirement and how we afford the lengthening of the "retired" time of life as people live longer.
But let us understand this… the pensions that teachers (and others) have signed were a contract – both legal and moral. For teachers, the social contract was simply, "We’ll pay you less than we should, but you’re going to get a good retirement package." I freely admit that having a pension was part of the equation for me. When I had the chance to leave teaching early in my career to go be a part of the tech boom in the ’90s, I thought about how much I love teaching, I thought about how much I’d give up financially to continue to do what I loved, and part of what made turning down some obscene sums of money was the pension plan. Long term sustainability rather than short-term wealth… it made sense, especially when I knew I’d rather be teaching than coding. But from a financial sense, it felt like investing in T-bonds rather than stocks. Sure, I might never be rich, but I’d never lose it all, either. Or so I thought.
But let us also remember that those pensions are also all part of a legal contract, made between unions and management. And that’s important to note right now. Teachers (and other state employees) got state pensions through negotiations. Contracts were signed, and legal promises were made. Contracts are a hallmark of the civil society, and I think it’s a dangerous moment in time when politicians think that they can just break those contracts because it’s easier to do that than to honor a contract.
And while this is part of a longer post, I don’t believe the "We Don’t Have the Money" line. States and districts have been deferring pension payments to mask fiscal problems for too long, and now we have reached a crisis. (And the Federal government has been doing the same thing by using Social Security to mask the size of the real deficit.)
The money was there. But state after state and politician after politician chose to put off doing the right thing by doing the expedient thing.
And worse, now they are saying that teachers are at fault for wanting states to honor their contracts. I suppose blaming others is easier than admitting that you are at fault. Certainly, I see my little children make that move often. And as a high school principal, I see 9th and 10th graders pull stunts like that, although we work hard to teach the kids at SLA to own their mistakes and not blame others for what is their weight to carry.
It’d be nice if our politicians would do the same, rather than just increase the toxicity of the rhetoric to get out doing what you were supposed to do in the first place.