Current Teacher Pension Systems Impose A “Tariff” On Labor

In Missouri, students in unaccredited school districts can now choose to enroll in neighboring accredited school districts. Some students who have elected to leave their struggling school now find themselves riding a bus for more than two hours a day. This has led many to question the school transfer idea and look for alternative solutions. Some have begun to ask, “What if instead of busing students from failing school districts to accredited ones, we bused great teachers from accredited schools into the failing districts?” It is an idea that has won a fair amount of attention.

Last November, the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis pitched the idea of providing high-quality teachers as instructional coaches in struggling schools. A similar idea was raised by CEE-Trust, the consulting firm that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education hired to address problems in the Kansas City School District. The CEE-Trust proposal called on accredited school districts “to play a significant role in helping [unaccredited] systems improve.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch heaped praise on this idea, calling it among the “more promising ideas.”

However, there is one easily overlooked obstacle standing in the way of turning this localized version of a teacher peace corps into a reality in Missouri’s two biggest cities: the incompatibility of different pension systems.

With the exception of Saint Louis and Kansas City, which have autonomous pension systems, all of Missouri’s school districts are part of the Public School Retirement System (PSRS). If a teacher moves from PSRS to one of the city plans, he or she will incur a significant loss in pension wealth. Koedel, Ni, Podgursky, and Xiang, economists at the University of Missouri and authors of a recent report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, put it this way:

Consider two teachers who work thirty-year careers in the profession. The first teacher works all of her thirty years in a single plan. The second teacher works fifteen years in one plan and then fifteen years in another. Because of the way pension wealth accrues in these plans, the latter teacher will have less than half the pension wealth of the former teacher at age fifty-five.

Though this may sound like a Missouri problem, it has bearing nationwide. As the Kauffman report notes, Missouri’s separate pension systems are “a microcosm of larger national issues concerning teacher pension systems—particularly the ability of teachers to move between systems.”

Just as teachers in Missouri cannot move between pension boundaries without incurring a financial penalty, teachers cannot move across state pension boundaries without incurring similar costs. Which means, a charter operator with campuses in multiple states, like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, or Rocketship Education, cannot freely move a teacher or school leader between their schools in various states. Indeed, these systems punish all teachers who move from one state to another.

Koedel, Ni, Podgursky, and Xiang liken the costs associated with switching between pension systems to a tariff, “Rather than promoting free trade and labor mobility, the pension plans effectively are imposing a tariff on the import or export of human capital between” the separate pension systems.

This “tariff” on labor is not a new problem, but a longstanding one that Saint Louis and Kansas City have been struggling with for years. Prior research has demonstrated that the separate pension systems create a barrier to recruiting school leaders into the two urban school districts. The separate pension systems also limit the pool of teachers who are willing to work in the cities. Jeffrey Kuntze, chief operating officer of the Confluence Charter Schools in Saint Louis, says “the separate pension systems make it extremely difficult for us to recruit veteran teachers from the county. We can get them when they retire, but not mid-career.”

Missouri’s pension boundaries would make it practically impossible for high-performing school districts to operate a program, run a school, or loan teachers within the Saint Louis or Kansas City boundaries, just as state pension boundaries would make it impossible for schools to effectively work across state lines. They simply could not move teachers or school leaders across pension boundaries without making them suffer great financial penalties.

The only real way to solve this problem is to close the current systems to new entrants and place them in a new, statewide system that participates in Social Security and has smooth wealth accrual. Before this idea causes mass hysteria, let me stress that this would not affect current employees’ or retirees’ pensions. They would remain secure in their current system. It would, however, remove the artificial pension boundaries and allow us to create a better pension system for teachers and students.

Opponents of this idea claim that closing the current defined benefit systems would be financially unsound, as it would lead to considerable “transition costs” that would far outstrip any benefits that we may receive. This is the very issue tackled in a recent Show-Me Institute policy study by Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Biggs examines the evidence for “transition costs” and concludes that the concerns are “largely mistaken and should not stand in the way of public employee pension reforms.”

Whether you believe busing teachers into failing schools is a viable solution or just another feel-good proposition, fixing this pension problem should be a top priority for Missouri and other states throughout the country. Missouri should not have a system that puts our neediest communities at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting talented teachers and states should not impose a tariff on attracting quality teachers and school leaders.

-James V. Shuls

James V. Shuls is the director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute. This first appeared on

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