Pension Neutrality: Wisconsin

Retaining Effective Teachers Policy


The state should ensure that pension systems are neutral, uniformly increasing pension wealth with each additional year of work.

Meets goal in part
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2011). Pension Neutrality: Wisconsin results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from:

Analysis of Wisconsin's policies

Wisconsin's pension system offers two ways to calculate benefits; a traditional formula system and a money purchase method. While the money purchase method is neutral, the traditional formula is not, meaning that each year of work does not accrue pension wealth in a uniform way until teachers reach conventional retirement age, such as that associated with Social Security.

When teachers in Wisconsin retire, their benefits are calculated using both the traditional formula and the money purchase method, and they are entitled to receive whichever calculation is higher. The money purchase method doubles the total refundable contributions teachers have made on their own behalf plus earnings. The money purchase method is a neutral formula because each year of work accrues wealth in a uniform way. 

Teachers' retirement wealth under the traditional formula is determined by their monthly payments and the length of time they expect to receive those payments. Monthly payments are usually calculated as final average salary multiplied by years of service multiplied by a set multiplier (such as 1.5). Higher salary, more years of service or a greater multiplier increases monthly payments and results in greater pension wealth. Earlier retirement eligibility with unreduced benefits also increases pension wealth, because more payments will be received.

To qualify as neutral, a pension formula must utilize a constant benefit multiplier and an eligibility timetable based solely on age, rather than years of service. Basing eligibility for retirement on years of service creates unnecessary and often unfair peaks in pension wealth, while allowing unreduced retirement at a young age creates incentives to retire early. Plans that change their multipliers for various years of service do not value each year of teaching equally. Therefore, plans with a constant multiplier and that base retirement on an age in line with Social Security are likely to create the most uniform accrual of wealth.

Within its traditional formula, Wisconsin's pension plan is commended for utilizing a constant benefit multiplier of 1.6 percent for years of service from 2000 on, and 1.765 percent for years of service prior to 2000. However, teachers may retire before standard retirement age based on years of service without a reduction in benefits. Those with 30 years of service may retire at age 57, while other vested teachers may not retire with unreduced benefits until age 65. Therefore, teachers who begin their careers at age 27 can reach 30 years of service by age 57, entitling them to eight additional years of unreduced retirement benefits beyond what other teachers would receive who may not retire until age 65. Also, all teachers may retire with reduced benefits at age 55, but the reduction in benefits for early retirement differs based on years of service. These provisions may encourage effective teachers to retire earlier than they may otherwise, and they fail to treat equally those teachers who enter the system at a later age and give the same amount of service.

Although the same eligibility timetable is in use that allows teachers to retire early with unreduced benefits based on years of service, teachers' pension wealth does not decline after they reach eligibility because their pension wealth is tied directly to the balance of their personal accounts, rather than calculated by a traditional formula. Teachers must be 55 years old to calculate their benefits according to the money purchase method. Similar to a defined contribution plan, teachers' contributions fund their own individual accounts, and their contribution and the employer match remain constant for each year of service.


Recommendations for Wisconsin

End retirement eligibility based on years of service.
Wisconsin should change its practice of allowing teachers with 30 years of service to retire at age 57 with full benefits. If retirement at an earlier age is offered to some teachers, benefits should be reduced accordingly to compensate for the longer duration they will be awarded.

Align eligibility for retirement with unreduced benefits with Social Security retirement age.
Wisconsin allows all teachers to retire before conventional retirement age, some as young as 57 without reduced benefits. As life expectancies continue to increase, teachers may draw out of the system for many more years than they contributed. This is not compatible with a financially sustainable system (see Goal 4-H).

State response to our analysis

Wisconsin recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis.

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).