I write in respectful disagreement with Tyler Bond's assertion that charter schools are not providing for their teachers’ retirement security in a letter to the editor on Nov. 8.
Charter schools were created with a specific purpose — to innovate in academics, finance and operations. Many have done just that in the area of compensation packages, such as offering private retirement options that are more responsive to and supportive of the 21st-century teacher — one who is often more transient in his or her career path. So, the question we should be asking is — how do we get financial relief and more choice to school districts as it relates to retirement benefits?
The Teacher Retirement System of Louisiana, or TRSL, which was designed nearly a century ago, sadly, no longer meets the needs of many educators who are less likely to spend a lifetime in Louisiana classrooms. The TRSL also saddles schools with substantial financial burdens, as participating schools must now contribute more than 30 percent of each teacher's salary toward the state's plan. Most of that money goes to paying off the almost $12 billion in unfunded accrued liability (debts the state is obligated to pay, by the way), not toward actual benefits for teachers. Those contribution levels are exorbitant and not sustainable for Louisiana's public schools.
Beyond the broader philosophical and practical fiscal issues with TRSL, Mr. Bond's report also ignores critical technical details that are misleading to readers. Unlike teachers in TRSL, charter schools that have chosen not to participate in TRSL pay into Social Security on behalf of their employees, which helps provide teachers with a base level of retirement savings, regardless of where their careers may lead them. Interestingly, Mr. Bond ignores Social Security in his calculations.
A case in point, in Mr. Bond’s report, he provides the example of KIPP New Orleans, which contributed 5 percent to its teachers’ retirement, plus Social Security. In TRSL, employers contribute about 4 percent of teacher salaries toward actual retirement benefits, but they don't pay into their teachers’ Social Security accounts. Bond estimates elsewhere in his report that Social Security replaces about 40 percent of the average retiree's income. Running these numbers, KIPP teachers come out on top, even for full-career workers.
Bond's report also looks only at 35-year veteran teachers, which are very rare. In Louisiana, only about 2 percent of teachers in TRSL teach that long. The TRSL pension plan purposefully backloads benefits so that those rare teachers receive disproportionately large benefits, leaving everyone else with far less.
At the end of the day, charters have a choice in what they offer. Perhaps more would choose to participate in TRSL if it was sustainable, efficient and fair to all teachers.
I do agree with Bond that it's time to have a real debate, but not about charter schools. The real discussion should be about how and when policymakers will adopt a better retirement plan that provides all teachers with a path to a secure retirement and averts a potential fiscal crisis that could negatively impact tens of thousands of educators.
executive director, Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools