Reforming retirement system will attract and retain quality educators

By Chandra Madafferi

I feel optimistic when meeting first-year educators, who tell me they are excited and ready to face the future. Many say they still chose to go into the profession despite others trying to talk them out of it.

These are educators we desperately need to keep – for the sake of our students.

Thankfully, we are seeing pay increases, improved working conditions, record levels of funding for public education, and critical learning supports for our students, like free breakfast and lunch programs. But there is still more that can be done to combat the educator shortage.

I believe it is time for state leaders to bring back high-quality, defined-benefit retirement programs for school employees to help end the educator shortage once and for all.

When I first started teaching, I was encouraged by a veteran colleague to buy five years of service credit to help strengthen my retirement. The purchase of service credit was a common practice for newer teachers at the time, and as the amount we owed was figured based on the previous year’s earnings, it was a manageable expense for most of us. It was especially helpful for those who wanted to take time away to raise a family without harming their retirement.

Over the years, many of my friends considered leaving teaching but decided to stay – partly because they didn’t want to lose the financial investment they had made when they purchased their service credit.

Back then, it was common for educators to spend 30 years or more on the job. These were experienced, high-quality teachers, coaches, paraeducators, administrators and more, who imparted a lifetime of wisdom to their students.

There was no such thing as an educator shortage.  In fact, the opposite was true, as school jobs were often difficult to come by thanks to Michigan’s reputation of valuing school employees. Good pay, respect for the profession and secure retirement provided a solid incentive to stay on the job and improve practice over time.

Today, it’s clear how erosions in school employee retirement security compounded the educator shortage.

High-quality retirement that included health care, coupled with a good living wage, provided educators a middle-class lifestyle and kept many of our best and brightest working in local schools. Teachers could afford to earn graduate degrees to deepen content knowledge and improve their skills. Students benefitted tremendously from having strong, committed and well-compensated educators.

Returning to high-quality defined benefit plans will give our schools a powerful educator recruitment and retention tool.

Improved retirement, such as restoring the Member Investment Program (MIP) and the ability to purchase service credit, will attract amazing teachers and school support staff who will want to stay for the long haul.

Going back to offering these quality plans also works to honor the service of our veterans by welcoming them into second careers in our schools – allowing them to add to their retirement while continuing to serve our country and utilizing their college scholarships and technical training programs.

Perhaps we will even attract enough interest in public school career opportunities to help deal with the severe substitute teacher shortages that plague our schools. Not long ago, substitute teaching was seen by aspiring teachers and school districts alike as an opportunity to develop skills, provide quality instruction, and ensure that potential hires were a good fit for the school and the community – all while contributing to pension savings.

We have made progress in addressing the educator shortage, and more needs to be done. Providing all school employees with a secure retirement through defined benefit plans would go a long way toward attracting — and keeping — great educators for our kids.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, Michigan Education Association President Chandra Madafferi, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Executive Secretary-Treasurer Tom Lutz and selected Service Employees International Union members.

(Posted as submitted to Detroit News)

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