Pension Sustainability: Colorado

Pensions Policy


The state should ensure that excessive resources are not committed to funding teachers' pension systems.

Meets a small part of goal
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2015). Pension Sustainability: Colorado results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from:

Analysis of Colorado's policies

As of December 31, 2015, the most recent date for which an actuarial valuation is available, Colorado's School Division of its pension system for teachers is 60.7 percent funded, a decrease of 0.2 percentage points since the previous fiscal year. Its current pension debt exceeds $16,800 per pupil throughout the state. Colorado also has a 50-year amortization period. This means that if the plan earns its assumed rate of return of 7.50 percent and makes its full actuarially determined contribution payments, it would take the state 50 years to pay off its unfunded liabilities. Colorado's amortization period significantly exceeds the standard 30-year period, and its funding level is too low. The state's system is not financially sustainable according to actuarial benchmarks.

Colorado commits excessive resources toward its teachers' retirement system. The mandatory employee contribution rate to the defined benefit plan is 8 percent and reasonable considering that the state does not enroll its members in Social Security. The employer contribution rate of 22.54 percent, is excessive. Statutory requirements set the employer contribution rate at an established rate of 10.15 percent (9.13 percent of which fund pensions after subtracting 1.02 percent for health care), rather than an actuarially determined amount. Enactments in 2004, 2006, and 2010, however, mandated increases in the rate until 103 percent funding is reached. These increases are aimed at paying down the system's pension debt. There are two components slated for increase: the Amortization Equalization Disbursement contribution, or AED, and the Supplemental Amortization Equalization Disbursement, or SAED. The AED increase for 2014, 3.50 percent, comes from funds that would have otherwise been available for wage increases and will rise to 4.50 percent by 2016. The SAED component is 4.50 percent in 2015 and will increase by 0.5 percent each year to 5.50 percent. These increases render employer contributions unreasonably high, even though teachers and local districts are not also contributing to Social Security.


Recommendations for Colorado

Ensure that the pension system is financially sustainable.
The state would be better off if its system was over 95 percent funded and had an amortization period of 30 years or less to allow more protection during financial downturns. Colorado, however, should consider ways to improve its funding level without raising the contributions of school districts and teachers. In fact, the state should work to decrease employer contributions. Committing excessive resources to pension benefits can negatively affect teacher recruitment and retention and crowd out funding for other areas in education. Improving funding levels necessitates, in part, systemic changes in the state's pension system. The Flexibility and Neutrality analyses provide suggestions for pension system structures that are both sustainable and fair.

State response to our analysis

Colorado referred to its funding and liability rates under the new GASB reporting requirements. This state further asserted that the employer contribution rate is "9.13% plus 4.5% for AED=13.63% fixed by statute." In addition, Colorado questioned whether teacher and employer contribution rates shouldn't be assessed as reasonable on an individual basis, particularly for states that are providing "Social Security substitute systems."

Last word

For the purposes of continuity and comparison, this analysis uses the previous reporting requirements for funding and liability rates. In addition, the employer contribution rate in this analysis also includes SAED.

Research rationale

Many states' pension systems are based on promises they cannot afford to keep.

Teacher salaries are just one part of the compensation package that teachers receive. Virtually all teachers are also entitled to a pension, which, upon vesting, provides compensation for the rest of their lives after retirement. In an era when retirement benefits have been shrinking across industries and professions, teachers' generous pensions remain fixed. In fact, 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.

Under defined benefit systems, states have made an obligation to fund fixed benefits for teachers at retirement. However, the financial health and sustainability of many states' systems are questionable at best. Some systems carry high levels of unfunded liabilities, with no strategy to pay these liabilities down in a reasonable period, as defined by standard accounting practices. Without reform, these systems are a house of cards, vulnerable to collapse as funding cannot keep up with promised benefits. And it is taxpayers who will have to pay if it all tumbles down.

Pension plans disadvantage teachers early in their careers by overcommitting employer resources to retirement benefits.

The contribution of employers to their workers' retirement benefits is a valuable benefit, important to ensuring that individuals have sufficient retirement savings. Compensation resources, however, are not unlimited, and they must fund both current salaries and future retirement benefits. Mandated employer contributions to many states' teacher pension systems are extremely high, leaving districts with little flexibility to be more innovative with their compensation strategies. This is further exacerbated for states in which teachers also participate in Social Security, requiring the district to pay even more toward teacher retirement. While retirement savings in addition to Social Security are necessary, states are mandating contributions to two inflexible plans rather than permitting options for teachers or their employing districts.

This approach to compensation disadvantages teachers early in their careers, as the commitment of resources to retirement benefits almost certainly depresses salaries and prevents incentives. Lower mandatory employer contribution rates (in states where they are too high; in some states they are shamefully low) would free up compensation resources to implement the kinds of strategies suggested elsewhere in the Yearbook. In addition, some states require high employee contributions; the impact this has on teachers' paychecks may affect retention, especially early in teachers' careers.

Pension Sustainability: Supporting Research

NCTQ's analysis of the financial sustainability of state pension system is based on actuarial benchmarks promulgated by government and private accounting standards boards. For more information see U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2007,  30 and Government Accounting Standards Board Statement No. 25.

For an overview of the current state of teacher pensions, the various incentives they create, and suggested solutions, see Robert Costrell and Michael Podgursky. " Reforming K-12 Educator Pensions: A Labor Market Perspective." TIAA-CREF Institute (2011).

For evidence that retirement incentives do have a statistically significant effect on retirement decisions, see Joshua Furgeson, Robert P. Strauss, and William B. Vogt. " The Effects of Defined Benefit Pension Incentives and Working Conditions on Teacher Retirement Decisions", Education Finance and Policy (Summer, 2006).

For examples of how teacher pension systems inhibit teacher mobility, see Robert Costrell and Michael Podgursky, " Golden Handcuffs," Education Next, (Winter, 2010).

For additional information on state pension systems, see Susanna Loeb, and Luke Miller. " 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 (2006); and Janet Hansen, "Teacher Pensions: A Background Paper", published through the Committee for Economic Development (May, 2008).

For further evidence supporting NCTQ's teacher pension standards, see " Public Employees' Retirement System of the State of Nevada: Analysis and Comparison of Defined Benefit and Defined Contribution Retirement Plans." The Segal Group (2010).