Pension Sustainability: Nebraska

2015 Pensions Policy

Goal

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

Meets in part
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2015). Pension Sustainability: Nebraska results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/state/NE-Pension-Sustainability-74

Analysis of Nebraska's policies

As of June 30, 2016, the most recent date for which an actuarial valuation is available, Nebraska's pension system for teachers is 89.6 percent funded, an increase of 12.5 percentage points since NCTQ's last report. Its current pension debt is $3,715 per pupil throughout the state. It also has an amortization period below 30 years. This means that if the plan earns its assumed rate of return and makes its full actuarially determined contribution payments, it would take the state less than 30 years to pay off its unfunded liabilities. Nebraska's system is financially sustainable according to actuarial benchmarks.

Nebraska commits excessive resources toward its teachers' retirement system. The current employer contribution rate of 11.88 percent and employee contribution rate of 9.78 percent are too high, in light of the fact that local districts and teachers are also contributing to Social Security and the fact that the state is also making additional payments.

The rates are set so that the districts pay 101 percent of the employee contribution rate and the state makes a 2 percent payment, as well as any additional required funding to meet actuarially determined funding needs. Thus, school districts contribute 9.88 percent of payroll to the pension fund. While these rates allow the state to pay off liabilities within the required 30-year period, it does so at a high cost, precluding Nebraska from spending those funds on other, more immediate means to retain talented teachers.

Citation

Recommendations for Nebraska

Avoid committing excessive resources to the pension system.
While the state meets actuarially benchmarks for a financially sustainable system, it does so at a high cost, precluding Nebraska from spending those funds on other more immediate means to retain talented teachers. Committing excessive resources to pension benefits can negatively affect teacher recruitment and retention and crowd out funding for other areas in education. The state should consider decreasing employer contributions, even more than currently scheduled, to allow the state and local districts to spend those funds on other recruitment and retention strategies. However, it must be careful to maintain its funding level to allow for protection during financial downturns. Improving funding necessitates, in part, systemic changes in the state's pension system. The goals on pension flexibility and pension neutrality provide suggestions for pension system structures that are both sustainable and fair.

State response to our analysis

Nebraska was helpful in providing information that enhanced this analysis

How we graded

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).