Pension Plans That Attract (Some) Florida Teachers

The research field of teacher pensions has been a relative backwater, but lately it just keeps getting more interesting. Yesterday, the Fordham Institute released a new paper from Marty West and Matt Chingos analyzing a 2002 policy change in Florida which allowed teachers to choose between a traditional defined benefit pension plan and a 401k-style defined contribution plan. The authors were able to track who chose which plan, what subject they taught, how effective they were in the classroom, how long they remained teaching, and whether the pension plan’s structure had any effect on retention.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they found that math and science teachers, teachers with advanced degrees, and charter school teachers were all more likely to opt for the portable defined contribution plan. These teachers may enter the profession not planning to stay for long or, in the case of charters, may anticipate switching to another school that’s not enrolled in the Florida defined benefit system (Florida charters have a choice on whether to participate or not).

Important, they did not find any differences in effectiveness between those who chose the defined benefit plan and those who chose the defined contribution plan, but they did find differences in attrition rates. Teachers who opted into the defined contribution plan were one percentage point more likely to leave before their second year and nine percentage points more likely to leave after their fifth year. This will give fodder to the crowd that claims that defined benefit plans do a better job of retaining employees than 401k-style defined contribution plans and support those seeking to preserve the status quo in most other states.

But wait, there’s more to this story. If you care at all about the thousands of teachers who will one day become ex-teachers, this paper puts numbers on just how many there are and how much money they’re losing. In the seven years of the study, Florida districts hired 92,000 first-time teachers. The authors found that roughly 40 percent of these beginning teachers stay less than six years, the amount of time Florida required a teacher to be employed before becoming eligible for pension benefits. By not meeting the vesting requirement, the authors estimate each of those ex-teachers will lose out on retirement savings of up to $27,784 in today’s dollars.

It was outside the scope of the study, but Florida recently lengthened the vesting period from six to eight years, meaning even more teachers are likely to become ex-teachers before qualifying for pension benefits, leaving even more money on the table. (See how Florida’s vesting requirements compare to other states here.)

This research is part of a new wave of pension research linking pension policies to what actually happens in schools. Last November, CALDER released a paper exploiting a similar policy change in Washington state. It gave teachers a choice between a traditional defined benefit plan and a hybrid plan that combined a less-generous defined benefit with a defined contribution component. But unlike Chingos and West, they found t teachers who chose the hybrid plan out-performed teachers who chose the defined benefit only by about 2 to 3 percent of a standard deviation, an effect that would be similar in magnitude to the difference between a beginning teacher and a teacher with one to two years of experience. And last month I wrote about a new paper studying an early retirement plan in Illinois that led to huge numbers of older, more experienced teachers retiring but which resulted in no academic harm. When average teacher experience declined rapidly, we would have expected student achievement to go down. Instead, despite an influx of novice teachers, student math and English test scores either stayed the same or went up.

This is about as exciting as the pension world gets.

-Chad Aldeman

Chad Aldeman is a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners.

This blog entry originally appeared on The Quick and The Ed.

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