Pension Flexibility

2017 Pensions Policy

2017 Goals for Pension Flexibility

The state should ensure that pension systems are portable, flexible and fair to all teachers.

Best practices

Best practice 0

States

Meets goal 2

States

Nearly meets goal 2

States

Meets goal in part 11

States

Meets a small part of goal 35

States

Does not meet goal 1

State

Progress on this goal since 2015

  • Improved
  • Stayed the same
  • Regressed
How we graded

Research rationale

Anachronistic features of teacher pension plans disadvantage teachers early in their careers. Nearly all states continue to provide teachers with a defined benefit pension system, an expensive and inflexible model that neither reflects the realities of the modern workforce nor provides equitable benefits to all teachers. To achieve the maximum benefits from such a plan, a teacher must begin and end his or her career in the same pension system. Teachers who leave before vesting—which takes as long as 10 years in some states—are generally entitled to nothing more than their own contributions plus some interest.[1] This approach may well serve as a retention strategy for some, but on a larger scale it fails to reflect the realities of the current workforce. At present, the United States is experiencing growth in school-age populations in some states, while other states are experiencing a decline.[2] The nation's workforce needs to be able to respond to these changes. The current workforce is increasingly mobile, with most entering the workforce expecting to change jobs many times.[3] All workers, including teachers, may move to jobs in other states with no intention of changing careers. To younger teachers in particular, a defined benefit plan may seem like a meaningless part of the compensation package and thus fail to attract young talent to the profession.[4] A pension plan that cannot move across state lines and that requires a long-term commitment may not seem like much of a benefit at all.[5]

There are alternatives. Defined contribution plans are fair to all teachers at all points in their careers. These plans are more equitable because each teacher's benefits are funded by his or her own contributions plus contributions from the employer specifically on the individual employee's behalf.[6] This is fundamentally more equitable than defined benefit plans, which are generally structured to require new teachers to fund the benefits of retirees. Moreover, defined contribution plans are inherently portable and give employees flexibility and control over their retirement savings. However, it must be noted that defined benefit plans can also be portable and fair, so long as they are structured as cash balance plans or plans that permit the withdrawal of employer contributions.[7]


[1] For an overview of the current state of teacher pensions, the various incentives they create, and suggested solutions, see: Costrell, R. M., & Podgursky, M. (2011, February). Reforming k-12 educator pensions: A labor market perspective. New York, NY: TIAA-CREF Institute. Retrieved from https://www.tiaainstitute.org/public/institute/research/briefs/institute_pb_reforming_K-12_educator_pensions.html
[2] National Center for Education Statistics. (2016, January). Enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools, by region, state, and jurisdiction: Selected years, fall 1990 through fall 2025. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d15/tables/dt15_203.20.asp
[3] For examples of how teacher pension systems inhibit teacher mobility, see: Robert Costrell and Podgursky, M. & Costrell, R. M. (2010). Golden handcuffs. Education Next, 10(1). Retrieved from http://educationnext.org/golden-handcuffs/; For an overview of the current state of teacher pensions, the various incentives they create, and suggested solutions, see: Costrell, R. M., & Podgursky, M. (2011, February). Reforming k-12 educator pensions: A labor market perspective. New York, NY: TIAA-CREF Institute. Retrieved from https://www.tiaainstitute.org/public/institute/research/briefs/institute_pb_reforming_K-12_educator_pensions.html
[4] For evidence that retirement incentives do have a statistically significant effect on retirement decisions, see: Furgeson, J., Strauss, R. P., & Vogt, W. B. (2005). The effects of defined benefit pension incentives and working conditions on teacher retirement decisions. Education Finance and Policy.
[5] For examples of how teacher pension systems inhibit teacher mobility, see: Robert Costrell and Podgursky, M. & Costrell, R. M. (2010). Golden handcuffs. Education Next, 10(1). Retrieved from http://educationnext.org/golden-handcuffs/
[6] For further evidence supporting NCTQ teacher pension standards, see: The Segal Group, Inc. (2010). Public employees' retirement system of the state of Nevada: Analysis and comparison of defined benefit and defined contribution retirement plans. Retrieved from https://www.nvpers.org/public/executiveOfficer/2010-DB-DC%20Study%20By%20Segal.pdf
[7] For additional information on state pension systems, see: Loeb, S. & Miller, L. (2006). State teacher policies: What are they, what are their effects, and what are their implications for school finance? Stanford University: Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice. Retrieved from http://web.stanford.edu/~sloeb/papers/Loeb_Miller.pdf; Hansen, J. (2008, May). Teacher pensions: A background paper. Committee for Economic Development. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED502293