What the debate over tenure for public school teachers misses

It seems like in most jurisdictions, teachers get a pension if they stay at their job for thirty years.  So what happens if you’re a teacher and you’re burnt out after, say, twenty-two years?  You shlep out the last eight years to get your pension, because it’s a huge part of your compensation package, that’s what.  I’ve met several teachers over the years who’ve confided that they’ve grown to hate their job, but won’t leave because they’d lose their pension, and they are oh-so-close.

So putting aside the battle over teacher tenure, how about a reform that both sides should be able to agree on: structure teacher pensions so that they don’t discourage teachers who would like to quit before thirty years are up from doing so.  This could involve a switch to defined contribution plans, or it could just mean that you get a proportionally smaller pension if you quit earlier.

It’s true, of course, that the same dynamic is at play with other government jobs that involve pensions, and maybe those should be reformed too.  But my sense is that the difference between and enthusiastic teacher and a burnt-out one one is more important both for job performance and for society at large than, say, the difference between an enthusiastic meter maid and a burnt out one.

David Bernstein is the George Mason University Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, VA. His latest book, Lawless: The Obama Administration's Unprecedented Assault on the Constitution and the Rule of Law, will be published in November.

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Will Baude · July 16, 2014