The state should ensure that pension systems are portable, flexible and fair to all teachers.
Wisconsin 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 five 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. The state, however, is commended for offering a fully portable supplemental savings plan.
Teachers in Wisconsin 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. Non-vested teachers do not have a right to later retirement benefits; they may only withdraw the portion of their funds allowed by the plan. Wisconsin teachers who first entered the pension system on or after July 1, 2011, vest at five years of service, which limits the options of many teachers who leave the system prior to this point. Teachers who entered the system prior to this date vest immediately. This older provision is more flexible, fair, and appropriate for a mobile teaching force. According to a recent report, 64 percent of employees in Wisconsin's teacher-covered pension plan vest, meaning that 36 percent of teachers do not become eligible for a pension and, therefore, can only collect their refundable contributions with interest.
Teachers in Wisconsin who choose to withdraw their contributions upon leaving before retirement age receive their employee contributions plus interest. For fiscal year 2017, teachers must contribute 6.8 percent of their earnings. 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 contributions.
Wisconsin 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. Wisconsin's plan allows teachers with three years of Wisconsin service to purchase time for previous teaching experience, up to the amount of their Wisconsin service. While better than not allowing any purchase at all, this provision disadvantages teachers who move to Wisconsin with a significant amount of teaching experience.
In addition, the purchased out-of-state service may not be used to establish vesting or to qualify for health insurance at retirement. In addition, because purchased service may not exceed Wisconsin service, teachers either have to purchase years one at a time or wait to purchase a lump sum, which makes the cost much more expensive than if they were allowed to purchase all years at the start of service in Wisconsin. The state's plan does not allow for the purchase of maternity or paternity leaves, which is a severe disadvantage to any teacher who needs to take leave for parental care or for other personal reasons. Wisconsin is commended for offering teachers the option to make supplemental contributions to their Wisconsin Retirement System employee accounts. Voluntary contributions are made after taxes. While not a fully separate savings plan, this allows teachers to save additional funds.
Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds, Your Benefit Handbook, ET-2119 Revised October 2013. Aldeman, C. and Rotherham, A. (2014). Friends without Benefits: How States Systematically Shortchange Teachers’ Retirement and Threaten Their Retirement Security, Bellwether Education Partners.
Offer teachers a pension plan that is fully portable, flexible and fair.
Wisconsin 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. As the sole option, however, defined benefit plans severely disadvantage mobile teachers and those who enter the profession later in life. Because teachers in Wisconsin participate in Social Security, they are required to contribute to two defined benefit-style plans.
Increase the portability of its defined benefit plan.
If Wisconsin maintains its defined benefit plan, it should allow teachers that leave the system to withdraw employer contributions. The state should also allow teachers to purchase their full amount of previous teaching experience upon the first day of employment, allow the purchase of parental leaves and decrease the vesting requirement to year three. A lack of portability is a disincentive to an increasingly mobile teaching force.
Offer an employer contribution to the supplemental retirement savings plan.
While Wisconsin at least offers teachers the option of a supplemental defined contribution savings, this option would be more meaningful if the state required employers also to contribute.
Wisconsin did not respond to repeated requests to review this analysis.
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. 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. 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. 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.