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Do Illinoisans Think Teachers’ Pension Benefits Grow On Trees? A New Poll Seems To Say ‘Yes.’

Forbes Online

Thursday, February 13, 2020  |  Commentary  |  By Elizabeth Bauer - Contributor

Education--Educators/Administrators , Pensions (70)

Yesterday, the Illinois Education Association released new polling on what it calls the “State of Education” — that is, public opinion on schools and teachers in Illinois, based on a November poll of randomly-selected adults in Illinois.

The results were not a surprise.

Asked to say the first word that comes to mind about Illinois public school teachers, nearly two-thirds (63%) said something categorized as a positive response. Having high quality public schools was identified as a high priority (8 to 10 on a scale of 10) by 81% of those polled, second only to cleaning up corruption (85%); drilled down, 59% said it was a “10,” a top priority, compared to 69% identifying cleaning up corruption in that way (each choice was prioritized separately), and 58%, lowering crime.

What’s more, respondents had a more favorable view of their local schools than nationwide schools: only 23% gave schools state- or nationwide an A or B ranking compared to a full 53%, ranking their local schools that way.

And, finally, lest you wonder why I’m addressing this poll on this platform, the poll does indeed ask about pensions, and these results were concerning. The poll asked:

“Right now, teachers hired after the year 2011 in Illinois must work in a classroom until age 67 in order to be eligible to receive their pensions, no matter how many years they have been teaching. Do you strongly oppose, somewhat oppose, somewhat support or strongly support recently hired teachers being able to receive their pensions at age 60 instead of waiting until 67?”

Yes, my jaw dropped when I saw this.

Illinois teachers are indeed able to retire before age 67. They will see their pensions reduced to reflect the increased number of years of payments, but they are not trapped in the classroom until age 67.

And it’s all the more shocking to design a poll suggesting that a reasonable alternative is retirement at age 60 — especially when teaching is far from the sort of strenuous job for which early retirement or a shift to another occupation is appropriate.

Now, in the question on priorities, though ranked as a priority by fewer people than chose education, 53% of people did believe that it should be a high priority to reform the state pension systems. But despite this, 62% of Illinoisans supported a change to enable retirement at age 60.

Ow. Ow. Ow.

It makes my head hurt.

Drilling down to various demographic groups, surprisingly, it is the younger demographic groups who supported a reduction in the retirement age most strongly. Here’s the breakdown (page 310 of the full report, as viewed online, or 251 in the printed report pagination):

  • Age 18 - 24: 82%
  • Age 25 - 34: 72%
  • Age 35 - 44: 58%
  • Age 45 - 54: 64%
  • Age 55 - 64: 58%
  • Age 65+: 53%

What accounts for this? Are younger folk simply less informed and more taken-in by the poll’s misleading wording, or are they ageist-, believing that older teachers should leave the classroom?

Remarkably, there was no other demographic split which produced this clear a trend. 63% of men and 61% of women supported an early retirement age. Even splitting out responses by whether they had a family member who was a teacher, there is not a stark differentiation — 63% of those with family members and 59% of those without support this age reduction. Of those who them selves worked in education, 66% supported the age reduction, compared to 61% of those who didn’t.

Lastly, the poll also asked:

“As you may know, teachers in Illinois do not pay into and therefore do not collect Social Security when they retire. Do you think that Illinois teachers should receive their full pension, see their pensions cut some or see their pensions eliminated?”

Again, headache. An appropriate question might have suggested that teachers should in fact participate in Social Security (and Illinois teachers are in the minority, as 35 states’ teachers are in the Social Security system).

But here are the responses: 75% believe they should receive their full pension, even though, mathematically, at least some of these folks must have simultaneously said that they believe that the state pension systems should be reformed. Again, there are only modest differences between teachers and non-teachers, between those who have teacher-family members and those who don’t. But there is a strong divide by sex: women are much more likely to support retaining full pensions, at 81% vs. 69% of men. And, the pattern of support by age isn’t quite as strong, but it’s still clear (page 305 of the report, as viewed online, or 246 in the printed report pagination):

  • Age 18 - 24: 85%
  • Age 25 - 34: 82%
  • Age 35 - 44: 80%
  • Age 45 - 54: 70%
  • Age 55 - 64: 67%
  • Age 65+: 72%

What’s more, the younger folks are less likely than the older ones to respond that they “don’t know.” They may be less-informed, but, if so, they don’t know what they don’t know.

Again, 53% of Illinoisans say that pension reform is an important priority for them, an 8 - 10 (page 83). That’s 55% of women and 52% of men, 53% of teachers, and 53% of non-teachers. And 35% say that pension reform is a top priority — a “10.” But of those who place reform at a 10, only 67% support reducing pensions. And, yes, again, split by age, 43% of 18 - 34 year-olds, vs. 55% of 35 - 59 year-olds, and 60% of 60+ year-olds, consider pension reform an important priority.

What’s more, that pattern is not there, or not as strong, for the “lowering taxes” priority (that’s 63%/70%/70%) or the “balancing the state budget” priority (77%/76%/79%).

All of which means that we — that is, those who support pension reform, who are convinced that it is a necessary step for Illinois to be able to balance its budget and provide essential services, who believe that there is no sleight of hand that can make the issue go away without hard choices — need to figure out how to get our message out to everyone that neither money nor pension benefits grow on trees. And if that takes meme-writing or some viral YouTube or Tik-Tok videos, well, then let’s get on it.