Here we are, one day before Christmas, enchanted with the dazzling lights, cozy with our matching gingerbread pajamas. The kiddos in my household are excited for Santa (even though Santa told the 3-year-old that he could not, in fact, have the “knife like Peter Pan’s” that he requested). As far as they know, this magical man will come into our house – through the front door since we don’t have a fireplace – and voila! Christmas presents! Who paid for them? How did they appear? It’s magic!
Teacher pension funding used to be a little like that. School districts hired teachers, set their salaries, and for the most part, sent the bill for the employer cost of those pensions to the State. They probably didn’t know how much their bill was. It was a largely invisible benefit. Teachers got their pensions and districts paid a fraction of the real cost. Because the true cost of teacher pensions was all but invisible, no one paid much attention to how inequitable of a system this was. In a state that already had the most inequitable school funding formula in the country, funding the employer costs of teacher pensions at the State level was only making the inequity worse. But much like Santa himself, we just couldn’t see it.
But now we can! Just recently, a new piece of data was added to the Illinois report card thanks to a bill, SB 865 (Manar/Mitchell-Davis), that was enacted last year. The data wasn’t ready in time for the report card release in October, but now it’s here, just in time for Christmas! It shows us the per pupil benefit each district receives by the State picking up its tab for pension costs. On average, the State kicks in $502 per pupil for teacher pension normal costs. Here are two snapshots that illustrate the two extremes of how that breaks down in individual districts:
DISTRICT A has 197% of the resources it needs, but its per pupil, state-paid pension benefit is still a whopping $1,300:
DISTRICT B has 66% of the resources it needs, yet it only sees a $350 per pupil benefit from the State’s teacher pension payment:
Sorry to spoil the magic, kids. But when we know better, we can do better. Let’s start the new year off with an honest conversation about how we can continue to make our school funding system more equitable, and who pays for teacher pensions needs to be on the agenda.
 If we want to be true to the analogy, we could mention here that the State – hardly an innocent victim here—used to defer its payments too, like if Santa maxed out his credit card to keep the toys coming and remortgaged his workshop a few times. But that’s beside the point, really.