We're Learning About Education

One of the best things about being a legislator is the fact that you never stop learning.

From brownfields to utility deregulation, from special ed to higher ed, from roads and bridges to historical sites and battleships, from taxes to insurance, to...

Well, you get it. Everything. As the new session gets underway this week, education is taking top billing.

Every speech I've heard, from the State of the State by Governor Paul Cellucci, to the State of the House by Speaker Tom Finneran, stresses the importance of education, from preschool through grad school. There is a bundle of new bills focusing on education. And education is in the news.

Our Westfield State faculty members finally got a three percent raise, with negotiations continuing. Educators are getting back to the classroom to figure out what to do about dismal test scores in our fourth, eighth and tenth grades across the state. U Mass/Amherst may become the site of an honors college. New college graduates are valiantly trying to pass state tests so they can work in the Commonwealth. Seasoned teachers are demanding not to be tested.
And there's legislation pending to change the retirement system for our public school teachers.

Okay, now I have to admit it. I do, on occasion, but only rarely, lets say seldom, for example when I want to get depressed, read the "Pulse Line" in this paper. (And, I might add, as a former newspaper reporter, a journalist by trade, I think a forum for anonymity is not journalism at its best.) Nevertheless, I admit, from reading recent items in the paper, that there is some interest in my support of this pending legislation.

As I reported, I co-sponsored a bill, that passed the House unanimously last year, to make improvements in the teachers retirement system. Unfortunately, the bill didn't get approved by the Senate, which didn't even bring it up for debate, and was dead at year's end.

So, it's coming back in 1999. Basically, the legislation I've co-sponsored would increase a teacher's pension by two percent for each year of service beginning with the 25th year. For example, a teacher with 34 years of service could increase their pension by 20 percent (10 years times 2 percent).

Critics have said that I'll be taking money out of their Social Security checks to pay for teachers' pensions. Not so.

There's no cost to the taxpayers of the city or state. Let me repeat that. There's no cost to the taxpayers of the city or state. And it doesn't come out of Social Security either.

So, who pays for it?

First of all, the teachers who choose to participate will be required to pay 10 percent of their salaries into the pension system annually, which will cover about 59 percent of the cost. The balance will come from investment earnings of the pension system, which has averaged about 13 percent for a dozen years or more.

Why should we do this?

Because the bill enhances the attractiveness of teaching as a profession, and we'll be able attract and retain more and better teachers. Because Massachusetts has one of the lowest pension schedules for teachers with more than 25 years of service. Because we'll save money. Because, compared with our current system, it will encourage earlier retirements, thus helping provide a more diverse teaching force, and helping us save money because newer teachers cost less than seasoned ones.

What does the current system do to discourage retirement? Basically and simply, we now allow earlier retirement only if a teacher is willing to accept a significantly reduced pension.

Teachers, like all other Massachusetts public employees, don't participate in Social Security. Private sector employees pay 6.2 percent of their salary each year to participate in the system, and their employer pays an additional 6.2 percent. Teachers pay up to 11 percent of their salaries into the pension system, depending on ate of hire.

Those hired after July 1, 1996, pay 9 percent on the first $30,000 of salary, and 11 percent for everything earned over $30,000. Those hired prior to that are assessed at lesser amounts, from 5 to 10 percent, depending on date of hire. And, there's no employer "match."

So now you know, how teachers literally earn their retirement.

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