Teacher Retirement Benefits: Even in Economically Tough Times, Costs Are Higher Than Ever

By Costrell, Robert M.; Podgursky, Michael | Education Next, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Teacher Retirement Benefits: Even in Economically Tough Times, Costs Are Higher Than Ever


Costrell, Robert M., Podgursky, Michael, Education Next


The ongoing global financial crisis is forcing many employers, from General Motors to local general stores, to take a hard look at the costs of the compensation packages they offer employees. For public school systems, this will entail a consideration of fringe benefit costs, which in recent years have become an increasingly important component of teacher compensation. During the 2005-06 school year, the most recent year for which U.S. Department of Education data are available, the nation's public schools spent $187 billion in salaries and $59 billion in benefits for instructional personnel. Total benefits added about 32 percent to salaries, up from 25 percent in 1999-2000. The increase reflects the well-known rise in health insurance costs, but it also appears to include growing costs of retirement benefits, which have received much less attention.

Conventional wisdom holds that teacher pensions (along with other public pensions) are more costly than private retirement benefits, for reasons dating to an earlier era of low teacher salaries over lifelong careers. In spite of dissent from this view by some researchers (see sidebar), in this case we find that conventional wisdom is right: the cost of retirement benefits for teachers is higher than for private-sector professionals.

To track changes in retirement costs and compare employer contributions to retirement for public school teachers with those for private-sector professionals, we draw on recent data from a major employer survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor. These data show that the rate of employer contributions to retirement benefits for public school teachers in 2008 is substantially higher than for private professionals: 14.6 percent of earnings for teachers vs. 10.4 percent for private professionals. Moreover, the gap has widened over the four years the data have been available. Between March 2004 and September 2008, the difference more than doubled, rising from 1.9 to 4.2 percentage points (see Figure 1).

There are several reasons one might expect employer contributions to retirement to be higher for teachers. First, nearly all teachers are covered by traditional defined benefit (DB) pension plans, in which employees receive a regular retirement check based on a legislatively determined formula. These plans have, over the years, come to offer retirement at relatively young ages, at a rate that replaces a substantial portion of final salary. U.S. Department of Education data show a median retirement age for public school teachers of 58 years, compared to about 62 for the labor force as a whole. A teacher in her mid-50s who has worked for 30 years under a typical teacher pension plan will be entitled to an annuity at retirement of between 60 and 75 percent of her final salary. In nearly all plans this annuity has some sort of cost-of-living adjustment. One does not generally observe comparable retirement plans for professionals and lower-tier managers in the private sector, since most employers have replaced traditional DB plans with defined contribution (DC) or similar 401(k)-type plans, in which the employer and employee contribute to a retirement account that belongs to the employee. Nor do those traditional DB plans that remain typically reward retirement at such early ages; they more nearly resemble Social Security, where eligibility is age 62 for early retirement, and 66 and rising for normal retirement.

The Survey Data

Our analysis draws on data from the National Compensation Survey (NCS), an employer survey developed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The NCS survey is designed to measure employer costs for wages and salaries and fringe benefits across a wide range of occupations and industries in the public and private sectors. Although the BLS has been reporting quarterly fringe-benefit cost data for various public and private employee groups for more than a decade, only since March 2004 has the bureau broken out these fringe-benefit cost data for public school K-12 teachers. …

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