'This was huge' : Rochester teachers reflect on statewide effort to overhaul teacher pensions
When it comes to retirement, Minnesota teachers are categorized into two groups: Those who benefit from the “Rule of 90” and those who aren’t.
ROCHESTER — Although Rochester teachers were part of a large, statewide push to overhaul pension plans in education, they didn’t get quite the result they were hoping for.
The issue has come to the forefront recently as the consequences from a decision made 30 years ago are beginning to mean that more and more teachers can’t retire as young as they used to. So, teachers started advocating for pension reform in a strong, unified front.
“I think this is one of the biggest pushes I’ve been involved with — this was huge,” said Dan Kuhlman, president of the Rochester Education Association. “We had literally thousands of emails, calls and letters that went to the governor and legislators. It was coordinated. It was a strong effort.”
On paper, it looked like this was a good time to raise the issue of pension reform. There was a multi-billion state surplus. There was a former teacher serving as governor. There were education-friendly legislators.
As Kuhlman described, teachers showed up en masse to support the reform. In April, educators filled the Sate Capitol Building's rotunda, waving signs and chanting "better pensions now."
And for that matter, there was some work accomplished around pension reform. The retirement age was lowered from 66 to 65. Teachers have to contribute 0.25% more to the Minnesota Teacher Retirement Association. The contribution from employers, meaning school districts, will increase 0.75%.
But compared to what teachers used to have in Minnesota, the recent changes still fell flat of the goal.
“It felt to a lot of people like this was the year where we could actually get really good pension reform done,” said Jacob Johnson, a Mayo High School math teacher. “It’s a step in the right direction, but I wouldn’t say this is the finish line that people were hoping to get to.”
When it comes to retirement, Minnesota teachers are categorized into two groups: Those who benefit from the “Rule of 90” and those who don't. They’re referred to, respectively, as Tier 1 and Tier 2 teachers.
The Rule of 90 meant that teachers could retire with a full pension once their age and their years of experience equaled 90. Assuming a teacher started working right after graduating college, they could realistically expect to retire by their late 50s.
The Rule of 90 was voted out more than 30 years ago in 1989. But the consequences of that decision are just now starting to affect retiring teachers who were not hired early enough to be grandfathered into the old system.
The issue of pension reform is just one of the issues factoring into a larger discussion about teacher retention.
“Teaching has gotten so much harder since 1989, it just makes sense to make a full pension easier to access for the teachers who have given so much to our state,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said. “Pensions are also an important recruiting tool for talented people considering teaching as a career because the state of Minnesota is offering something corporate America never will — a defined-benefit pension with a reasonable retirement age."
It’s not just a matter of keeping teachers in the profession. It’s also an issue of staying competitive with other states. According to the statement from Education Minnesota, the current retirement age of 66 is “the third oldest in the nation.”
According to Johnson, that’s a problem not just for recruiting teachers into the profession, but for finding substitute teachers as well. Teachers who were able to retire under the Rule of 90 were young enough that they often stayed in the classroom as substitute teachers when needed.
“Now, when you run people out to 66, they don't have anything left to give," Johnson said. "They're not coming back to sub."
Pension reform was not the only education issue on the table. This year’s legislative cycle included an increase in the state’s per-pupil funding formula, an increase in funding for special education, funding to address the shortage of teachers of color.
It was a positive session in many ways for education, even if teachers realize there is still more room for improvement.
“I do believe that what we saw was a pro-public education bill,” Kuhlman said. “That, to me, is a core issue.”