Teaching does have its rewards, but in Texas they sure aren’t economic.
Folks who have chosen teaching in Texas as a follow-on career, as I have done, must be nuts. Either this or they just love kids and teaching, as I do, more than they love the prospect of a comfort- able retirement. This is because of two Federal laws, the Govern- ment Pension Offset (GPO) and the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). It is also because: Federal tax code restrictions disallow Individual Retirement Account (IRA) contribution tax credits for individuals contributing to a pension plan other than Social Secur- ity; many school districts in Texas do not participate in Social Security, and; teachers in Texas are not given a choice on whether to participate in the state’s Teacher Retirement System (TRS).
The details associated with this conundrum are complicated and confusing. Conundrum? Webster defines it as a question or an intricate and difficult problem having only a conjectural answer, or a riddle whose answer either involves a pun or is a pun. So, some- body please correct me on all this if my understanding of the situation is flawed, but with so many in the Congress these days hell-bent to screw with it, I think the term, “social security,” is itself a pun.
The Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE), of which I am a proud member, has it essentially right. The TRS in Texas is a better program than Social Security. Its monthly benefits paid out to retired participants are substantially greater than those distributed to Social Security retirees. But this is only true for those who have had a substantial number of creditable years of service as teachers here in Texas. Those who teach fewer than ten years or are younger than fifty-five and have taught fewer than five years will have wasted their time and money by contributing. And, did you know that the average male going directly into teaching after graduating from college in Texas only teaches for two years? It’s true. The pay and the working conditions in many districts are that bad. Also on the plus side for TRS are retirees’ health insurance, return-to-work benefits, and life insurance. But again, these benefits are only available to retirees who complete minimum service eligibility requirements.
Some believe that making Social Security coverage mandatory would solve the problems that educators experience due to the GPO and WEP. But I don’t. Neither does ATPE. We recognize that this would only serve to damage TRS and other state pension funds. An alternative not often talked about by ATPE, our other state teacher unions, or our Texas legislators, would be to allow teachers to choose whether or not to participate in TRS.
At age sixty-two, I’ve been a TRS participant in Texas for three years now. So, at age sixty-five, as I understand the current rules, I will be eligible for some level of TRS annuity. Fortunately, I had more than thirty years of substantial income with Social Security contributions being made before becoming a teacher, so my pension from Social Security should not be greatly affected. Neither will my military retirement. Thank God for that. But I’m in an enviable situation; the numbers just happen to work in my favor. By my rough calculations, however, and I do mean rough because the WEP offset and retirement calculation formulas of both TRS and Social Security aren’t easy for social science majors like myself to follow (they’re also subject to change and no one expects them to become more liberal), I’ll have to work full time as a teacher until after my seventieth birthday to just break even. This is true even though the Texas 79th Legislature passed a revision to TRS eligibility requirements that obviate the notorious Rule of Eighty for retirees who are sixty-five or older and have at least five years of service. It’s still true because of income tax disadvantages and the reduction I will incur to my social security income for the years that I do not contribute. The other advant- ages of TRS, however, the medical and life insurance offered to retirees, plus to return-to-work benefits, I anticipate will help to compensate for this lost income.
The Government Pension Offset (GPO) doesn’t really concern me or my wife. It’s an offset provision in Social Security law that reduces spousal Social Security benefits for public employees who are eligible for government pensions such as those provided by TRS. When I am gone, if I live long enough, my wife will have her own retirement income plus a portion of my military retirement owing to the years we have paid into the military retirement Survivor’s Benefit Plan. The spouses of others employed by the state here in Texas are not so fortunate.
The tax code that precludes Individual Retirement Account (IRA) contribution tax credits does impact us, my wife and me. As a hedge against the prospect of my not being able to finish a full five years worth of teaching for some reason, I have been contrib- uting monthly to a traditional IRA. But, even though we are buying our own home, claimed no personal exemptions, had extra money deducted from both our salaries, had substantial profes- sional expenses, and contributed generously to our church and other qualified charities last year, we did little better than break even on our income taxes. Tax cuts? Apparently not for those of us in the middle class, thank you very much Mr. Bush. Given our joint income tax bracket, the IRA tax credit, for which we would have been eligible the past three years had I not been contributing to TRS, would have helped a lot.
Before I conclude this little crying session, on behalf of all state public servants in this country, I want to publicly thank The Honorable Howard (Buck) McKeon, United States Congressman from California, one of the primary sponsors of the Social Security Fairness Act (a resolution for the full repeal of the GPO and WEP), the 321 other members of the House of Representatives who support this bill, and 28 bipartisan senators who support a similar resolution in the Senate. For more information on this and to find out what you can personally do to help Congress get this bill out of committee and onto the floor for a vote, CLICK HERE to visit the National Education Association’s website.
Again I say, if I’ve not stated things as they really are for teachers here in Texas, or if someone has a different take on this reality, I will gratefully accept correction. Otherwise, please go to the polls in November with your public servants in-mind and give no heed to politicians’ rhetoric claiming to have done teachers a great service anytime in recent history.
Now, if I can just live long enough and stay well… hmmmm, school starts again in just little more than a week. Then I won’t have so much time on my hands for all these blog postings. Do I hear a HOOAH out there!
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