ILLINOIS (IRN) — Even as education funding has increased, legacy pension costs have squeezed out money that could otherwise be used to boost teacher pay, reduce class sizes and pay for additional support staff, according to a new study that blames pension costs for an uptick in teacher strikes in recent years.
In 2019 dollars, the nonprofit Manhattan Institute found that teacher pay averaged less nationally in 2017 than it did in 2000 while per-pupil spending had increased above its pre-recession levels, on average.
“As these legacy costs have risen, teacher salaries have flatlined or even declined in value,” the report said.
The additional education funds in Illinois aren’t necessarily going to the classroom, but being directed at pension costs, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Daniel DiSalvo said.
Illinois’ contribution to the Teachers’ Retirement System increased to $4.81 billion in the current fiscal year. TRS officials have said that’s still $3 billion short of what actuaries recommend putting into the system.
Illinois teachers that started in 2011 or later get less generous retirement packages than their more senior peers.
“The cost of pensions has been going up while at the same time, paradoxically, the generosity for younger teachers has been going down,” DiSalvo said.
With states contributing more to pensions and the accompanying benefits, the study said, they cannot allocate more to day-to-day school operations, resulting in a crowding out of classroom money.
A working paper from the University of Missouri found that, since the Recession, there has been a correlation between higher pension contributions and lower teacher pay. That paper said “public employers are less able to shield the workforce from pension costs during times of fiscal stress. This problem is exacerbated because unlike other benefit costs, such as for health care, pension costs are countercyclical.”
Chicago Public Schools, which had thousands of teachers walk out of classrooms Thursday, is an anomaly from the pattern described in the Manhattan Institute study. Chicago teachers rejected an offer that included 16 percent raise over five years, which would have given the average teacher a salary near $100,000 a year by the end of the contract period.
“That flies in the face of CPS’ fiscal situation which just two years ago people were calling for it to declare bankruptcy,” DiSalvo said. “One wonders if Chicago under Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot has returned to its old practices of fiscal irresponsibility.”
Other striking teachers unions, academics have said, have been more willing to strike not just for issues of pay, but also as a pushback to President Donald Trump and a longstanding narrative that teachers have been failing students.
“The timing can be seen as: 1) Resistance to the Trump presidency; and 2) Having enough of the decades of public rhetoric blaming schools and teachers for broader societal and educational issues,” Syracuse University Professor George Theoharis said. “Certainly since No Child Left Behind in 2002 and in many ways since Nation at Risk in 1983, schools and teachers have been labeled as failing.”
The Chicago Teachers Union has demanded the district hire additional support staff like school nurses and social workers, a negotiating point prohibited by state educational labor laws.