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The Public Pension Story You Weren’t Reading About (Until Recently)

• December 13, 2012 • 12:20 PM

There’s a lot of talk about the sorry state of pensions in America, both the increasing lack of defined-benefit plans and the predicaments of local governments that have made pension promises more generous than they can afford.

But according to the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K–12 Education and fellow (and former federal edu-crat)  Williamson M. Evers, the most undercovered important story on public education was … pensions. Teachers’ pensions, to be exact. As the task force explains:

Public education faces its own fiscal cliff as baby boomers retire from the classroom. Decades of severe underfunding have put teacher pension funds in far worse jeopardy than reported by the media because the figures reported by states are premised on unwarranted, rosy assumptions. To cover their true costs, states and districts will need to find hundreds of billions of dollars that might have gone toward a better teacher salary structure, including extra compensation for high performers.

Whether by accident or design, the task force’s observation was made public the same day that the National Council on Teacher Quality released a 72-page report explaining “how teacher pension systems are failing both teachers and taxpayers.” The quick takeaway is that the U.S. has $390 billion in unfunded pension liabilities for teachers. California’s schools lead the pack with $57 billion in debt, perhaps no surprise given the state’s population and fiscal ineptitude, although Illinois is considered in the worst shape on this particular issue. New York, meanwhile, is listed as having no unfunded liabilities, something that makes it unique.

Having unfunded liabilities isn’t automatically catastrophic, though; the report argues that a mere 41 states are insufficiently funded. And this last year alone, whether covered by the media or not, 22 states and the District of Columbia at least tinkered with their teacher pension systems. Whether those changes helped or hurt remains to be seen; the council argues it’s a little of both.

The Hoover task force’s pronouncement was contained in a list of the five most and five least covered educational stories in 2012. The five most covered stories—in order: charter schools, teachers’ unions, special education, early childhood education and the No Child Left Behind Act—were selected based on a number of stories that appeared on 43 online and print news sites.

Determining the least covered was a little more of an art form. The task force looked at 65 topics it identified as important and then picked the five it felt were deserving of more ink. The ranking, then, is based on assignment by the task force, a reasonable but obviously idiosyncratic approach.

The remaining neglected stories were common core academic content standards for English and mathematics, international comparisons of student achievement, online or digital learning, and Louisiana’s education transformation. (The Pelican State saga, by the way, is also a charter school and voucher story, the task force notes, “But you wouldn’t know that from the general media.”)

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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