Sporting red T-shirts, many with the sleeves rolled up to catch any whisper of breeze in the nearly 100-degree heat, Arizona teachers marched through Phoenix last week and camped out on the Capitol lawn to lobby for pay raises and better education funding. They waved catchy signs to make their point that read “Sorry we’re closed. We’re trying to fund our future!” “Our students’ future depends on education—Fund it!” and “Starving the schools. Feeding the rich.”
Arizona educators, ranked among the lowest paid in the nation, blame tax cuts and stagnant state revenue for their woes. They accuse lawmakers of failing to adequately fund education. But conservative education analysts give that criticism a D-minus for accuracy.
Between 1992 and 2014, teacher pay across the country shrank by 2 percent, but inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending grew by 27 percent, according to Frederick M. Hess with the American Enterprise Institute. In Kentucky and West Virginia, two other states where teachers walked out earlier this year to push lawmakers for more funding, education spending increased by more than 35 percent over the same period.
States are spending money on education, but it’s not trickling down to teacher paychecks. So where’s it going? Pensions.
Although they might not be paid as well as some college graduates, teachers bank some of the best benefits around. The average civilian employee gets $1.78 in retirement benefits per work hour, while public school teachers get $6.22 per hour. Between 2003 and 2014, average benefits spending for educators rose from $14,000 to $21,000. But that money isn’t helping today’s teachers. It’s paying down pension debt generated by benefits guaranteed to yesterday’s teachers.
Given the pension pressure, teachers surely would support reforms to the benefit plans collapsing under their own weight, right? Nope.
In Kentucky, which has one of the most underfunded public pension plans in the nation, teachers rallied against pension reforms that would only apply to new teachers, not those already in the classroom. They also lobbied for—and got—a boost in education funding that amounts to $19 per student, about $12.5 million. But that pales in comparison to the $3.3 billion the state will spend over the next two years to shore up its public-employee pension plan. Analyst Chad Aldeman, a former Obama administration Education Department official, notes that if Kentucky lawmakers didn’t have to pump money into the pension fund and instead directed those funds into teacher paychecks, educators could be making $11,401 more than they are now.
And Kentucky isn’t the only state with a pension problem. Pension costs across the nation rose from 4.8 percent to 8.9 percent of education budgets between 2004 and 2015, and teacher pension systems are drowning in half a trillion dollars in unfunded liabilities. Olivia Mitchell, executive director of the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania, predicts defined benefit plans, which guarantee specific retirement perks, eventually will push the country into a crisis: “Pensions are now becoming the tail that wags the government dog, if you will.”
They’re also the elephant in the room at teacher protests, where educators complain about the problem but aren’t willing to contribute to the solution.