Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Pension Discussion with Eric Zorn, a Columnist for the Chicago Tribune

To Glen,

I’m glad you’ve agreed to have this e-mail exchange with me because I’m hopeful we can begin to clear up the points of difference between current and former public school teachers and critics of at least certain aspects of the education system.

I don't consider myself an adversary. I have great respect for teachers and am a staunch defender of the idea of public education. Though there are obviously lazy, untalented teachers among the ranks – as in any profession – I believe the percentage is not large and that schools absorb far too much of the blame when students underperform.

That said, I tend to share the view of those who say that union contracts have insulated teachers from some of the realities of life in the private sector experienced by those who pay their salaries. These agreements have made it too difficult to identify and fire poor employees, insulated employees from salary-market realities and established a retirement benefit program more generous and secure than most of us can look forward to.

It’s envy when you wish you had the job and retirement security and the regular raises that others have. When your taxes are paying for it, that envy becomes tinged with resentment – not just regarding teachers, but all public employees.

And when your state, county and city are bleeding red ink, threatening services, because over the years these public-employee arrangements haven’t been subject to the normal supply and demand forces that govern most of private employment, that resentment boils into frustration and impatience whenever these employees complain about not getting what they’ve earned, fair and square.

Are these feelings unreasonable?

Eric Zorn

Dear Eric,

As a former public school teacher, I appreciate an opportunity to have this discussion with you. There is a legal point of view to consider regarding your suggestion that union “agreements have made it too difficult to identify and fire poor employees.” Most people believe that tenure means never being “fired.” Besides establishing a sensible expectation of continued employment, tenure law protects a teacher against discrimination, such as age, race, religion, gender, and ethnicity (a guaranteed due process of law). Nevertheless, tenure law does not protect an incompetent teacher.

Teachers accept legal contracts in Illinois; for example, teachers do not pay into Social Security; their pension is generally their only source of retirement income.  Thus, the average teacher’s pension compared to someone with a college education in the private sector is not “generous.”  It is reasonable for a teacher to expect a pension contract to be a binding agreement. Would you agree?

Defined-benefit pension plans work effectively if they are fully funded.  Accordingly, these plans have an economic impact of hundreds of billions of dollars each year and support several million American workers in their jobs across the nation; defined-benefit pension plans contribute over a hundred billion dollars in annual local, state, and federal revenue (National Institute on Retirement Security).  The effect upon our state’s economy should the incomes of hundreds of thousands of middle-class Illinois residents be unilaterally diminished would be devastating.

Ironically, a teacher’s pension is still being blamed for Illinois’ budget deficits when the money that should have been paid to the pension system was used to cover essential services and other special interests of the state for several decades.  It is “unreasonable” to blame teachers and other state employees for “our state, county and cities’… bleeding red ink…” All citizens of this country should “boil into frustration and impatience” when we consider it was corporate America and the financial sector’s risks posed by credit default swaps, mortgaged-backed securities and derivatives that ignited the financial collapse. Unfortunately, in Illinois, the state government has added to this financial catastrophe by giving excessive tax breaks to corporations. We should be asking whether it is reasonable for Illinois policymakers to give taxpayers’ dollars to big businesses making billions in profits. 

The problem we all confront is not public employees’ pension, benefits and bargaining rights, for public employees have served their communities throughout their careers. The problem we must address is the state’s inequitable revenue system. This should be the focus and conversation in Springfield and in the media. Do you believe these statements are reasonable?


Pension discussion with Eric Zorn, Part 2 (May 8, 2012)

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