The ongoing crisis in teacher pension funding has led states to consider various reforms in plan design, to replace the traditional benefit formulas, based on years of service and final average salary (FAS). One such design is a cash balance (CB) plan, long deployed in the private sector, and increasingly considered, but rarely yet adopted for teachers. Such plans are structured with individual 401(k)-type retirement accounts, but with guaranteed returns. In this paper I examine how the nation’s first CB plan for teachers, in Kansas, has played out for system costs, and the level and distribution of individual benefits, compared to the FAS plan it replaced. My key findings are: (1) employer-funded benefits were modestly reduced, despite the surface appearance of more generous employer contribution matches; (2) more importantly, the cost of the pension guarantee, which is off-the-books under standard actuarial accounting, was reduced quite substantially. In addition, benefits are more equitably distributed between short termers and career teachers than under the back-loaded structure of benefits characteristic of FAS plans. The key to the plan’s cost reduction is that the guaranteed return approximates a low-risk market return, considerably lower than the assumed return on risky assets.
Our goal in this paper, presented at the 2020 Brookings Municipal Finance Conference, is to better understand teacher pension funding dynamics with a focus on sustainability and intergenerational equity. The origin of this paper is our analysis of the funding policy recommended in a highly publicized paper first presented at the 2019 Brookings Municipal Finance Conference (Lenney, Lutz, and Sheiner, 2019a;2019b). That proposed policy aims to alleviate rising pension payments that crowd-out classroom expenditures and teacher salaries by abandoning the attempt to pay down pension debt. While the problem of crowd-out is real, we show that, with uncertain investment returns, the recommended policy would carry significant risk of pension fund insolvency and a jump in contributions to the pay-go rate, which is much higher than current rates. We close by proposing a policy evaluation framework that better incorporates risk and the intertemporal tradeoffs between current contributions and likely future outcomes. We illustrate throughout with data from the California Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS).