We don’t know each other, but I’ve followed your work closely (and am looking forward to reading your new book on teacher politics). But I want to talk about your recent piece for Vox on Teach for America. You include a throway line about teacher pensions that’s worth clarifying. In describing TFA’s funders, you describe the Laura and John Arnold Foundation as a place:
where hedge-fund dollars are used to support causes ranging from criminal justice reform to reducing the costs of public pensions (including those held by veteran teachers).
Let’s ignore the “hedge fund” dog whistle that you threw in and talk about pensions. In full disclosure, the Arnold Foundation also funds part of our pension work, including this site, but I want you to know that your characterization of them, and the work to reform pensions more broadly, is wrong in a seemingly mild but very important way.
There are some pieces of nuance that you should understand here. The most important thing to note is that no one is seriously advocating for reducing the pensions of any individual teachers or retirees. In many places that would be illegal (and even if it weren’t, here at Bellwether we think it’s not the right thing to do regardless). Teachers deserve to be paid what they’ve earned.
However, some states have granted protections to workers giving them the right, from their first day on the job, to accrue future benefits. Changing rules like that is not the same thing as reducing someone’s pension. Worse, because these rules lock in benefits for existing workers, the only way for state and local governments to address funding problems is to target new workers exclusively. I believe we should protect the benefits that individuals have already accrued, but we shouldn’t tie the hands of state and local governments decades into the future.
We have a problem in our public discourse when “changes to a person’s potential future pension” becomes portrayed as “pension theft,” as it did recently in Illinois. Legislators were accused of “pension theft” for making prospective changes that only reduced pension benefits for those who had 20 years (!) or more before they were eligible to retire. Reasonable minds can disagree on what’s fair warning, but isn’t 20 years more than enough?
Finally, trying to change the structure of existing retirement plans is not even close to the same thing as going after retirees. Josh McGee, the vice president of public accountability at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation said just last week that, “Pension reform shouldn’t be about benefit cuts. That shouldn’t be the aim.” McGee’s own work has considered ways to shift expensive retirement costs into higher teacher salaries. When you call this “reducing pension costs,” you’re misleading readers into believing it’s about budget concerns and screwing over workers, not about helping design something that might be better for teachers. Lost in the noise about pensions is the basic fact that the system doesn’t even work very well for most teachers now.
That’s why we need to have a more honest debate about issues like this, something I’m sure you as a writer can appreciate. Next time when you consider teacher pensions, I hope you’ll consider a little more nuance. “Teacher Wars” is a catchy title for your book, but not everything has to be one.
All the best,
Chad Aldeman is a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners.
This first appeared on teacherpensions.org