Updated: 7 minutes ago Published: 16 minutes ago
Teachers in 49 states have the opportunity to earn a pension, or at the very least earn Social Security; Alaska’s teachers are the only ones without either option. Teachers who began working in Alaska prior to 2006 had a defined benefit plan which included a pension. One such educator who qualifies for that pension is the head of the English department at Bettye Davis East Anchorage High School, Janice Strickland. She has been teaching there since 1991. She is my constituent, and I met with her in her classroom while I was in Anchorage last week.
“As English department chair, I have the pleasure and the honor of working with a variety of teachers, but I’m losing two of my best this year,” Strickland explained. “One’s leaving Alaska, and she is a homegrown Alaskan, but she’s leaving because we have no retirement program. So, she’s going to Pennsylvania because there is more opportunity there. We’ve helped to train her, and now we lose her excellence, her contributions.”
Strickland continued: “Lack of retirement also plays a role in (the other teacher’s) decision to leave. He came here as a first-year teacher, and we have helped him grow and learn — and we are losing his excellence. I think that if he finds something that offers him more financial security in the future, then he will not come back. And I hate to say this, but I believe I’m losing two more next year.”
That level of turnover in one department is not sustainable. In 2021, Bellwether Education Partners studied the teacher retirement plans of all 50 states and ranked them. Alaska came in 43rd place, scoring straight Fs in all categories investigated. Teachers know this, and it is a deterrent to moving here. Strickland started teaching in West Texas in 1973. “If I had come (to Alaska), and there had been no retirement — because there is a good retirement system in Texas — I would not have stayed here.”
According to a 2021 report in Money Magazine, public school teachers make on average 20% less than someone of similar education in another field. A major reason they forego that extra income is the promise of being taken care of in retirement. Additionally, Alaska’s teachers do not earn Social Security. All they have is what they have managed to save through the defined contribution plan the state currently offers. Without access to Social Security, Alaska’s teachers are faced with the very real possibility of outliving their retirement savings or becoming financially destitute during a major market downturn. They are entirely exposed to market risks and the uncertainty of how long they may live. Social Security provides a modest measure of guaranteed income that is crucial to planning and managing a stable retirement.
“I’ve been in this a long time. I’m well taken care of (because of my retirement plan). But I want to leave my school, my students and my fellow teachers in a better place than they are now,” Strickland said. “If you want a good society that produces good workers, if you want to produce good parents, you must have stability in your schools. I just cannot emphasize enough that if you want good teachers, you’ve got to offer them something for their future.”
In the recent State of the State address, Gov. Mike Dunleavy expressed that he wants an Alaska that is good for families — a state people move to, not away from. Attracting and keeping good teachers will help stop our outmigration. A fear of how to provide a retirement system has proved paralyzing to the discussion of what a healthy retirement system looks like. However, the unsustainable turnover of teachers in our state demands we find solutions. I support a return to a defined benefit retirement because I recognize that it is necessary to the future of a strong education system in Alaska. And with a well-structured and shared-risk pension, a defined benefit does not equal a defined liability.
Finally, our teachers are not liabilities; they are the strongest assets to the foundation of our future society. Our job as legislators is to do what’s best for Alaska and particularly our children. A pension system for our teachers is critical to our mission.
Andrew Gray is the State House representative for House District 20 – the U-Med district in Anchorage. He hosts a weekly legislative podcast called “East Anchorage Matters.”
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