Idaho teachers’ retirement benefits among the best in the country, says study

Idaho public school teachers’ salaries were among the lowest in the country last year, but the retirement system they use was one of the best, according to a recent study from Bellwether Education Partners.

The nonprofit ranked Idaho’s teacher retirement offerings seventh in the country by weighing 15 factors, including:

  • How much money teachers pay in while working and get out in retirement.
  • How well funded the program is.
  • How long teachers have to work to guarantee benefits down the road.
  • What kind of return on investment taxpayers receive.

That combination of variables put Idaho’s plan — one shared by government employees across regions, levels of government and job types — near the top of the country.

If Idaho’s retirement offerings are as competitive as the study suggests, they could affect teacher retention and shed light on how effectively the state manages its government retirement program.

But the ranking leaves in question how much a high-ranked retirement offering can offset low-ranked wages, as school hiring teams navigate a competitive job market.

Regardless of how they might help Idaho retain educators, the retirement offerings have serious implications for the futures and livelihoods of the state’s 19,000 K-12 public school teachers.

“We’re not having a discussion about some arcane thing, like … botanists in temperate rainforests or … coastal fishermen,” study coauthor Andrew Rotherham said at an Education Writers Association webinar on his work. “This is a huge population … and that’s why it’s a broader retirement security issue.”

Many Idaho school employees, including public school teachers and administrators who work their jobs long enough, are eligible to receive retirement benefits through the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, or PERSI. Unlike in some states, Idaho teachers use the same retirement program as their fellow public employees.

The study

For Bellweather researchers, teachers’ access to PERSI is better than what most U.S. public school teachers use for retirement planning.

The group assigned letter grades based on how well a retirement system serves certain groups, giving Idaho a “B” for how it serves taxpayers and longtime teachers, a “D” for its service to short-term teachers and a “C” overall. The highest overall grade researchers gave any state was a “B.”

“Every state has room to improve,” Rotherham said last week.

Unlike in some states, PERSI enrollees and their employers both contribute to the program. Educators are vested, or guaranteed longterm benefits, after five years of working in Idaho’s public schools.

Since the ranking prioritizes offering retirement benefits to short- and mid-term teachers in case they make a career change or move, Idaho’s relatively short vestment period appears to have helped its ranking for short-career teachers in the study. While Idaho was given a “D” grade on that measure, it also ranked in the top 15, and more than half of states received an “F” for their support for teachers with shorter careers. Teachers in some other states have to work a decade or more to be vested. For Bellwether Education Partners, the latter setup risks setting retirement dates back by years.

Yet the kind of system that emphasizes benefits for teachers who’ve taught in one state for decades is meant to keep experienced teachers in a school system, the National Association of State Retirement Administrators told Money last week.

Recruiting and retention

Idaho schools might theoretically get a leg up over their out-of-state counterparts in attracting teachers who seek a strong retirement plan. But can that help recruiters counteract average take-home pay that ranked 45th in the U.S. last year, per a National Education Association report?

“When you look at hiring a brand-new teacher, they’re not looking at the retirement plan, state by state,” said Mountain Home School District Superintendent James Gilbert. They’re looking at areas that pay better, quality of life and other factors, he told EdNews by phone Thursday.

Rotherham pointed out that many teachers don’t cross state lines for competitive retirement benefits. They’re more likely to move due to life circumstances, like a spouse moving out of state, he said.

PERSI may not by itself be enough to anchor educators in Idaho in cases like that. All six of Idaho’s neighbors paid teachers more, on average, last year, as pandemic-caused budget holdbacks put a since-thawed freeze on Idaho’s teacher pay ladder. Half those states pulled better scores for their retirement plans in the study. Washington (3), Utah (4) and Oregon (6) all beat out Idaho in the ranking, though Montana (20), Wyoming (31) and Nevada (39) fell well behind the Gem State.

Still, Gilbert said PERSI “weighs pretty heavily” in his ability to hold onto experienced teachers who’ve become vested in the program. “It’s pretty critical” for keeping mid- to late-career teachers in Mountain Home because of “how well PERSI is run and how good the benefit is,” he said.

The stakes are evident. Idaho teacher retention rates have hovered around 2% below the national average over the past half decade. Notably, those numbers track how many teachers leave their schools year to year, not necessarily for schools outside Idaho.

Beyond teachers

While the highly ranked PERSI program hasn’t been a silver bullet for teacher retention woes, it’s similarly failed to stop districts from hemorrhaging lower-paid classified staff as unemployment bottoms out and stories circulate of lower-wage workers getting pay bumps that schools can’t match.

The Nampa, Vallivue and Wilder school districts have all felt an especially tight squeeze on bus drivers, mirroring what looks to be a national and statewide issue, per reporting from NPR and the Idaho Press.

The widely-publicized shortages hit — and in some districts, continue to slam —Idaho schools just months after the Legislature made PERSI more accessible to school bus drivers. A new law signed by Gov. Brad Little in April immediately allowed would-be drivers aged 60 and up to return from retirement and keep their PERSI benefits.

But shortages remain — in Mountain Home, where Gilbert is three weeks into the school year and without enough drivers — and across the state.

 

About Blake Jones

Reporter Blake Jones covers the politics and policy of Idaho's K-12 public school system. He's a lifelong Idahoan, and holds degrees in Creative Writing and Political Economy from the College of Idaho. Follow Blake on Twitter @jonesblakej. He can be reached by email at [email protected]

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