Pension math is like a splinter. A splinter is painful, and it's going to get infected and become even more painful if you do nothing. But taking it out is going to hurt too.
States trying to deal with the desperate state of their underfunded teacher retirement systems confront similarly painful choices. (See here for NCTQ's latest take on states' pension health.) In California, Governor Jerry Brown has proposed steep increases to district contribution rates in an effort to close an estimated $74 billion deficit. Required contributions will rise gradually over the next seven years to more than 19 percent. As the LA Times pointed out, that means a district will need to cough up nearly $10,000 for a teacher who makes an average salary of $50,000.
Districts are going to feel the pain, as these huge increases to retirement contributions will have to come from somewhere else in the budget. And with so much of district budgets already going toward teacher salaries and benefits, it's going to be nearly impossible to prevent the cuts from coming from services to students.
Governor Brown deserves credit for addressing the pension problem, rather than ignoring it as most policymakers seem willing to do. But here's where the splinter analogy falls apart: once that splinter is out, it's out. The same can't be said about pension math. Just plugging the hole is better than not plugging the hole, but it's not a permanent solution. Unless real structural and systemic reform is made to teacher retirement systems—in the best interest of teachers and taxpayers—we're going to go through the pain over and over again.