Pension Flexibility: Rhode Island

2011 Retaining Effective Teachers Policy

Goal

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

Meets a small part
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2011). Pension Flexibility: Rhode Island results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/state/RI-Pension-Flexibility-9

Analysis of Rhode Island's policies

Rhode Island only offers a defined benefit pension plan to its teachers as their mandatory pension plan. This plan is not fully portable, does not vest until year 10, and does not provide any employer contribution for teachers who choose to withdraw their account balances when leaving the system. It also limits flexibility by restricting the ability to purchase years of service. 

Some teachers in Rhode Island also participate in Social Security, so they must contribute to the state's defined benefit plan in addition to Social Security. Although retirement savings in addition to Social Security are good and necessary for most individuals, the state's policy results in mandated contributions to two inflexible plans, rather than permitting teachers options for their state-provided savings plans.

Vesting in a defined benefit plan guarantees a teacher's eligibility to receive lifetime monthly benefit payments at retirement age. Nonvested teachers do not have a right to later retirement benefits; they may only withdraw the portion of their funds allowed by the plan. Rhode Island's vesting at 10 years of service is very late and limits the options of teachers who leave the system prior to this point.

Many teachers will leave the system before they reach 10 years of service. Teachers in Rhode Island who choose to withdraw their contributions upon leaving only receive their own employee contributions. This means that those who withdraw their funds accrue fewer benefits than they might have earned had they simply put their contributions in basic savings accounts. Therefore, for teachers working in a district that does not participate in Social Security, leaving the pension system would have saved only 9.5 percent of their salary plus interest (see Goal 4-H), which is below the level conventionally recommended by retirement advisers for individuals not contributing to Social Security. While Rhode Island's mandatory contribution rate allows for flexibility in teachers' retirement savings, it also means that the state needs to educate teachers who work in districts not  participating in Social Security on what happens if they leave the system and encourage savings in other portable supplemental plans. Further, teachers who remain in the field of education but enter another pension plan (such as in another state) will find it difficult to purchase the time equivalent to their prior employment in the new system because they are not entitled to any employer contribution.

Rhode Island limits teachers' flexibility to purchase years of service. The ability to purchase time is important because defined benefit plans' retirement eligibility and benefit payments are often tied to the number of years a teacher has worked. Rhode Island's plan allows teachers to purchase time for previous teaching experience, up to five years. While better than not allowing any purchase at all, this provision is less than most states' and disadvantages teachers who move to Rhode Island with more teaching experience. The state's plan also allows for the purchase of approved leaves of absence, up to four years. This may be a disadvantage for teachers who need to take more than four years of total leave over the course of their careers for personal reasons such as maternity or paternity care.  

Citation

Recommendations for Rhode Island

Offer teachers a pension plan that is fully portable, flexible and fair.
Rhode Island should offer teachers for their mandatory pension plan the option of either a defined contribution plan or a fully portable defined benefit plan, such as a cash balance plan. A well-structured defined benefit plan could be a suitable option among multiple plans. However, as the sole option, defined benefit plans severely disadvantage mobile teachers and those who enter the profession later in life. Because some teachers in Rhode Island participate in Social Security, they are required to contribute to two defined benefit-style plans. Those teachers who do not participate in Social Security have no fully portable retirement benefits that would move with them in the event they leave the system.  

Increase the portability of its defined benefit plan.
If Rhode Island maintains its defined benefit plan, it should allow teachers that leave the system to withdraw their employee contributions plus interest and employer contributions. The state should also allow teachers to purchase their full amount of previous teaching experience, allow for the purchase of at least one year per parental leave and decrease the vesting requirement to year three. A lack of portability is a disincentive to an increasingly mobile teaching force.   

Offer a fully portable supplemental retirement savings plan.
If Rhode Island maintains its defined benefit plan, the state should at least offer teachers the option of a fully portable supplemental defined contribution savings plan, with employers matching a percentage of teachers' contributions.

State response to our analysis

The Employees' Retirement System of Rhode Island did not respond to repeated requests to review NCTQ's analyses related to teacher pensions.

How we graded

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 is as much as 10 years in some states—are generally entitled to nothing more than their own contributions plus some interest. 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 an explosion in school-age populations in some states, while other states are experiencing a decline. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. It must also be noted that defined benefit plans can be portable and fair, if structured as cash balance plans or plans that permit the withdrawal of employer contributions.

Research rationale

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).