Pension Sustainability: Washington

2011 Retaining Effective Teachers Policy

Goal

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

Nearly meets
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2011). Pension Sustainability: Washington results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/state/WA-Pension-Sustainability-9

Analysis of Washington's policies

As of June 30, 2009, the most recent date for which an actuarial valuation is available, Washington's teacher pension system is 116 percent funded and has no amortization period for Plans 2 and 3. This means that the state does not currently have any unfunded liabilities to pay off. Washington's system is financially sustainable according to actuarial benchmarks. However, it should be noted that Plan 1, which was closed to new members in October 1977, is only 84 percent funded and has an amortization period of 10 years.

However, Washington commits excessive resources toward its teachers' retirement system. The current employer contribution rate of 9.18 percent is slightly too high, in light of the fact that local districts must also contribute 6.2 percent to Social Security. The rate of 5.57 percent of this contribution goes to funding Plans 2 and 3, while the additional 3.61 is used to pay off unfunded liabilities in Plan 1. While this rate allows the state to overfund its current plan and pay off unfunded liabilities of its previous plan, it does so at great cost, precluding Washington from spending those funds on other, more immediate means to retain talented teachers. The mandatory employee contribution rates for Plan 2 of 4.8 percent and for Plan 3 of 5 percent are reasonable.

Citation

Recommendations for Washington

Avoid committing excessive resources to the pension system.
Washington is commended for having a current system that is over 100 percent funded. However, its closed system is underfunded and remains a financial burden on the current employees and employers. The state should consider decreasing employer contributions to allow the state and local districts to spend those funds on more immediate recruitment and retention strategies.

State response to our analysis

Washington recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis.

How we graded

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.

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).