Ending state pension will hurt teacher recruitment

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Why do you do what you do? For the essential public service workers in our society, the answer is more than just a paycheck. Being a part of something important, performing a job well and making a difference are all reasons people answer the call to challenging professions, and thank heaven they do.

Compensation for essential professions, such as teaching, has always been a package of salary and benefits. However, right now in Olympia, some politicians want to make the hardest and most important jobs in our society look pretty much the same as anything else in the “Help Wanted” section. The Senate Majority Coalition is proposing to essentially do away with the security of a pension for all new teachers entering the system.

What would happen if we depended on nothing more than the monthly salary to attract firefighters, law enforcement personnel or public health professionals? The overall benefits package and security of retirement more than just a paycheck make it possible for many, if not most of our best and brightest to serve in these vital jobs. Paychecks are seldom equivalent to the private sector, but the benefits are good, the job satisfaction can be, and there is the assurance of a secure retirement after a working life serving the needs of others.

Unfortunately, the state Senate Majority is pushing for Senate Bill 5851 which would move the state away from the security of defined-benefit pension plans to the uncertain world of defined-contribution retirement plans.

The choice of whether to do this depends a lot on what sort of talent you want to attract and how you feel about mediocrity.

These days, we know that our education system is severely bent if not broken. Salary and other benefits are eroding, due to limited resources, classrooms are more challenging, even dangerous places, and existing teachers have no reason to believe relief is on the horizon. At the same time, politicians and business leaders from Microsoft to Boeing are shouting for higher standards, more accountability, and more training in science, math and technical areas.

All this makes a career in teaching increasingly appear to be the emotional equivalent of running into a burning building. Yet people still answer the call. The question is: In such demanding times, how do we assure that we continue to induce the best and the brightest to answer the call?

Any talented young person with an interest in education has more alternatives to public education careers than ever before. What incentive is there for a college student today, burdened with an increasing tuition cost and debt, to pursue a career in teaching when the benefit of a secure pension is removed?

If Washington state wants to attract average people, doing average work, for an average wage, with no commitment to the employee and no commitment to their children, then the Senate Majority Coalition is on the right track. Its proposal backs away from everything the state has done in the past to attract quality professionals.

If, on the other hand, we want better, more accountable schools and children trained to the higher standard our employers are demanding, making the job of teaching less attractive makes no sense.

Trying to make the retirement system and benefits for essential public service workers look like some of the private sector when there is no hope of matching private sector pay scales is a bad idea at any time. Trying to do so while our largest employers are calling for dramatic increases in classroom standards is a recipe for disaster.

Ed Gonion is executive director of the Washington State School Retirees’ Association.

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