One indication of how disingenuous the world of public education has become is the sympathy some of us apparently feel for veteran Madison teachers who feel compelled to retire early.
As this newspaper detailed Sunday, early retirements have spiked over concerns about what Gov. Scott Walker’s bid to curtail public sector collective bargaining rights will mean for teachers’ retirements.
It’s clear teachers beginning their careers today could be subjected to lots of things the private sector has had to endure for a long time (e.g., merit evaluations, higher health care costs). What puzzles me is what veteran teachers risk by working a few more years — especially given the love they express for the job.
Take, for example, teachers’ ability to parlay unused sick days into health insurance coverage or other benefits after they retire.
District spokesman Ken Syke said the district’s legal team has not produced an opinion on this. But teachers union president John Matthews was certain it was a benefit long-time teachers would retain.
It’s no small matter, either, as teachers can start collecting a monthly pension check at age 55 — years before they are eligible for Medicare.
And speaking of pensions, Matthews said teachers also worry Walker could put them in jeopardy by draining the state’s pension funds with risky investing that doesn’t pan out.
Leave aside the question of whether the people in charge of the funds — some of the best managed in the country — would be so dumb.
More important is that state law prohibits the Legislature from taking away pension benefits teachers already have accrued. In the very unlikely scenario the funds have a string of bad years, state law requires higher contributions from employees and employers to meet beneficiaries’ promised benefits, according to Matt Stohr, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds. Nothing in Walker’s bill would change that.
Veteran Madison teachers do have one legitimate fear — that two years from now when the current union contract expires, the district will end a buyout program that encourages them to retire early by agreeing to pay them 19 percent of their salary for three years after they leave.
The district says the program actually saves money by encouraging higher-paid teachers to retire sooner, to be replaced by new teachers at lower salaries.
But if using taxpayer dollars to pay people not to work is in the vanguard of public services management, we’re in worse shape than I thought.
Most likely, all veteran teachers risk by working a few extra years past the (still questionable) enactment of Walker’s anti-union bill are the ability to rack up more sick days and get paid for not working.
It’s hard for me to see how such losses would put a veteran teacher’s retirement in jeopardy.
So I have a suggestion for teachers claiming to be heartbroken about having to retire: Stick around for a few more years. I suspect you’ll be just fine.