Commentary: Major education association leaders respond to latest state pension reform proposals

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Casey Allen, Bo Matthews, David Webster, Stephanie Winkler and Cherie Dimar
Special to KyForward

Providing the best learning opportunities we can to each and every child is among the most important functions of our state government. In fact, this is among the only constitutional requirements of our General Assembly. As representatives of educators, local school leaders and parents, we believe it is imperative that this sacred duty to our children is given the consideration it demands as legislators consider pension reforms.

A great education depends on effective educators who must be compensated in a way that attracts and retains the very best people to serve our students. The compensation plan, of which retirement benefits are a critical component, must be adequate and viable. For these reasons, we realize that some change is necessary not only to our pension systems but also to our state tax policies.

However, we are seriously concerned that proposals in the current framework would increase the cost of the system, increase financial burdens on our local communities, decrease retirement security for our teachers and staff while moving absolutely all risk to them, and, most troubling, increase the unconscionable student resource inequities among classrooms across the state. It would decrease benefits for retirees, current staff, and future hires, and increase revenue only from our employees themselves and from our local communities. We fear it would result in damage to public education on which families depend.

Local school boards have taken on an increasing share of education investment since the mid-1990s – especially since 2008 – and in many communities the specter of still further local tax increases is untenable. Communities around the state are economically distressed, property tax collection rates are falling, and many districts are unable to bear cost increases without a new investment from the state. Due to the recent unforeseeable collapse of unmined coal assessments, which has eroded property tax receipts, the number of districts being monitored for possible insolvency due to low cash reserves is at a high point and will expand if reforms increase local costs as the proposed framework would.

Increasing the share of financial investment borne locally will unavoidably reduce student opportunities. In districts that have already cut programs in recent years, including some that have already reduced staff and pay scales, the only areas left to cut are highly-valued programs such as full-day kindergarten, tutoring, arts, advanced placement (AP), dual credit and credentialing courses. Much of what we have accomplished to improve education for decades will need to be sacrificed.

The proposed framework would create a defined contribution plan with no amount of protected benefit whatsoever, which would be expensive in the near-term from a contribution standpoint and could leave employees with absolutely no savings or retirement income if another recession occurred as they neared retirement. This lack of financial security, which virtually no private or public sector employee faces, will decimate staff recruitment; students will suffer from increased class sizes and lack of specialized educators. It is difficult to imagine many of our finest young people choosing to enter a field of work that presented such risks.

An essential way to evaluate any reform is for each of us to ask ourselves this: under the proposed plan, would we proudly encourage our own daughters and sons to earn college degrees and enter the education professions? Or, would we instead tell our own kids that serving their fellow Kentuckians by teaching children to read and write won’t provide a safe, secure future, and urge them to consider other options?
How we respond to those questions, and how we as a state respond, will demonstrate the value we place on education and our future as a society. Will we do what it takes to fulfill the mandate enshrined in our Constitution or will we disinvest in the education of our children?

Casey Allen is president of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators; Bo Matthews is president of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents; David Webster is the president of the Kentucky School Boards Association; Stephanie Winkler is the president of the Kentucky Education Association; and Cherie Dimar is the president of the Kentucky PTA

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