Commentary | Education

Lessons—How to Help Solve the Teacher Shortage

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


How to Help Solve the Teacher Shortage

By Richard Rothstein

In the 21 years Bob Bender served as a New York City firefighter, he took courses at Long Island University. He eventually earned a degree in elementary education, and two years ago, at the age of 44, he retired, hoping to be a teacher.

He now works to supplement his Fire Department pension. Doing carpentry.

The reason: New York State law says he can’t collect his pension if he teaches in a New York public school, even though his beginning teacher’s salary would be only about half the $61,000 he last earned as a firefighter. The only way around this is for him to teach in Connecticut or New Jersey, because the “double dipping” ban applies only to New York public retirees who also have public employment in New York.

Bob Bender is not unusual. The Police and Fire Departments of New York City now insist that recruits have 30 units of college credit. Many then continue to take courses toward a degree; today 29 percent of New York firefighters have bachelor’s degrees.

With many states facing a severe teacher shortage, it makes little sense for schools to turn their backs on mature adults who want to teach. The New York law, mirrored in several other states, like Virginia and Idaho, should be amended.

Youthful retirees nowadays include many who went to work in the 1970’s, when there was no teacher shortage. College graduates who were then unable to enter teaching sought other jobs. Those who took on dangerous public safety roles can earn relatively early retirement, leaving them available to return to their first-chosen profession.

“At my last firehouses,” Mr. Bender said, “one guy had his master’s degree in English, another was qualified to be a math teacher, and another was working on his Ph.D. in physics.”

Michael Carter, a vice president of the union of New York City firefighters, has lobbied in Albany to let retired public employees teach without forfeiting pensions. Mr. Carter says there was fleeting interest after the shootings at Columbine High School; legislators thought some teachers should have the maturity and self-confidence of retired police officers and firefighters. But what emerged from last year’s legislative session was only a waiver for retirees to earn up to $18,500 in public employment, a provision intended to help schools recruit bus drivers.

There is a second untapped source of mature teachers- and these even have valuable experience in the job: states in the Midwest whose populations are growing slowly yet still produce teachers in large numbers.

Shortage states like California, New York and Texas do recruit recent graduates from the Midwest. But under current circumstances, recruiting experienced teachers is impractical even though some, their children grown, might find the coasts or warmer climates appealing. They can’t consider relocation, because their pensions are not portable.

Typically, both district (or state) and teacher contribute to a pension plan while she works. States invest this money and guarantee a level of pension calculated from the teacher’s retirement age, years of service and final salary.

If an experienced Wisconsin teacher is recruited by New York, she can withdraw her contributions to Wisconsin’s plan and turn them over to New York’s. But she can’t transfer the state’s contributions, or get credit for Wisconsin service.

For example: A Wisconsin teacher with 15 years’ service who leaves to teach in New York cannot carry those 15 years of credit to New York’s retirement system. If she eventually teaches for another 15 years in New York, she will then draw small annuities from both Wisconsin and New York. Combined, these will not amount to what she would have received from either staying in Wisconsin or getting 30 years of New York credit.
All this makes moving too costly.

In the recent presidential election campaign, both candidates sought a federal role in education. Underwriting pension portability is not so inspiring as teaching reading or reducing class size, but creating a national market for teachers is a uniquely federal role.

Assuring pension portability would be complex. Congress might want to subsidize movement of teachers from states whose pension contribution rates are low to those where they are high, and make other adjustments. For example, only in some states do teachers now participate in the Social Security program or have retiree medical coverage.

Subsidies would not be expensive, however, because few experienced teachers from low-contribution states would choose to move: even if shortage states could offer higher pay with pension portability, few teachers would ignore family ties or spousal employment to relocate.

But with so great a need for experienced teachers, even a few would make a difference. Recent baby-boom and -bust cycles have created a teaching force of many ready to retire, many just starting and few in between. Schools need to recruit midcareer professionals to fill this experience void. Local and national pension reforms can help them do so.

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