James V. Shuls

In a recent op-ed, I asked, “Why do our best superintendents always leave?” The answer was obvious—the pension system. After working for 30 or 31 years, superintendents can draw almost 80% of their salary in a pension and they can continue working. They just can’t keep working as a full-time educator in the same pension system. That is why nine out of the past eleven superintendents of the year have retired within two years of receiving the award but continued working, sometimes as a superintendent in another state. Mike Fulton, for example, retired from the Pattonville School District after winning superintendent of the year. Right now, he’s collecting over $210,000 in retirement benefits annually while earning an additional $250,000 as the superintendent of Shawnee Mission.

Advocates for Missouri’s current defined-benefit pension system argue that this type of system, where teachers are promised a generous and guaranteed pension once they retire, is needed because it increases teacher retention. Yet, there is little evidence that this type of system is a cost-effective method for increasing teacher retention. Rather, the example of these superintendents demonstrates how the system pushes out high-quality individuals. It does the same for teachers (teachers and superintendents are in the same pension system). When teachers hit 30 or 31 years, regardless of their quality or their desire to continue teaching, the financial incentive of the pension pushes them out.

Recently, Gov. Parson asked school superintendents to come up with a plan to increase teacher pay. One solution, which I have little hope will ever be recommended by the superintendents, is to change how we compensate teachers. A pension is basically a form of delayed compensation. We require teachers and their districts to contribute 14.5% of their salary to the pension system (the numbers are different in St. Louis City and Kanas City). That’s 29% of a teacher’s salary that is going into a pool that they may have access to if they make it to retirement.

We could give teachers in Missouri a 10% raise next year, with minimal cost to the state, if we just change this system.

Pension Contribution (29%)$14,500$0
Social Security Contribution (12.4%)$0$6,820
Defined Contribution$0$2,750 (5% of salary)
Total Compensation$64,500$64,570

Currently, teachers in the Public School Retirement System (PSRS) do not contribute to Social Security. The pension system is their only required retirement savings. In this proposed scenario, the teacher would receive a 10 percent raise on his or her salary. The teacher would begin contributing to Social Security (6.2 percent from the individual and the employer) and would be eligible for Social Security benefits. Additionally, the teacher and his or her employer could contribute a combined 5 percent of salary to a defined-contribution retirement account, such as a 401k or a cash balance plan. Of course, with a smaller raise the teacher could contribute more to retirement. 

There are numerous benefits to this proposal. First, teachers would own their retirement accounts. They would not lose any money if for some reason they do not vest at five years. They could also continue to work past 31 years and their accounts would not lose value. Teachers could also choose to invest more in their account, as many do now in 403b accounts.

The biggest benefit is that teachers would have higher salaries today. If we want to keep our best teachers and superintendents, higher salaries are a much more effective tool than outdated pension systems.

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.