We are hearing a lot these days about public schools concentrating on SEL – Social and Emotional Learning. Like other education reforms before it, SEL makes many promises.
But, there are concerns that this relatively new program might not be in the best interests of students or parents. In fact, Robert Holland writes in the Detroit News that SEL might in the end actually result in a greater push for parents to maintain control with school choice enhancing things like education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, private-choice vouchers, and homeschooling.
Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated statewide newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.
If, as numerous rankings indicate, Kentucky is a physically unhealthy state, we may be an even- unhealthier commonwealth when it comes to our public pension systems.
Despite dumping a greater portion of the state budget into the public retirement systems than at any point in history, those plans still languish with hazardously low funding levels.
None of the systems reach the 90 percent funding level considered healthy by experts.
Neither the Kentucky Employees Retirement System (KERS), County Employees Retirement System (CERS), Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) nor State Police Retirement System (SPRS) reach even 60 percent funding levels, meaning those systems’ assets don’t even come close to fulfilling promises made to future retirees.
There’s been so much incorrect information spewed about the retirement crisis that the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, the organization I’m honored to lead, has created KentuckyPensionTruth.com, a new website to help Kentuckians understand how we arrived at this point and to provide a clearinghouse – a one-stop shop, if you will – of public pension research, analysis and commentary from around the state and nation.
One of the site’s most important sections are readable answers to 22 Frequently Asked Questions.
Question No. 21 of those FAQs simply queries: “So what’s the answer?”
“Simply keeping the current employee benefit structure in place and only increasing payments to fund the ARC won’t solve the problem,” the answer states.
So what will?
We include a paradigm that hits the reset button for the TRS by creating a new plan for future teachers, which will provide them a generous, stable and mobile retirement plan while also protecting taxpayers from another mountain of pension debt like we currently face from rising in the future.
Some key points about the plan:
- Stability is achieved by requiring a 9 percent payroll contribution from members while the state’s portion would be set at 6 percent, which, unlike the current arbitrary funding approach, would never change.
- Members would assume a greater risk in exchange for a more stable system offering still-generous benefits.
Rather than taxpayers being on the hook for downturns in the stock market or other negative scenarios, the system uses a process to control costs by adjusting benefits and retirement eligibility in future years.
This will keep the system’s funding demands within a narrow pre-determined range and prevent unfunded liabilities from burdening future generations of taxpayers and employers.
By offering a 2.5 percent benefit factor for each year of service, teachers who dedicates 30 years to Kentucky classrooms will receive a retirement benefit equaling 75 percent of the average of their five highest years’ salary and 80 percent for 32 years of service – generous benefits according to industry standards.
- While the 9-percent contribution is similar to what employees currently pay, this new plan doesn’t include benefit enhancements previously tacked on by past politicians using the pension systems primarily for personal political gain, courtesy of Kentucky’s taxpayers.
For example, this new paradigm locks in teachers’ benefit factor at 2.5 percent and would not permit that to rise to 3 percent after 30 years in the system – as the current defined-benefit plan does. But neither does it start a teacher out at a lower level of benefit, which some in the current system have experienced.
Also, it doesn’t allow retiring teachers to utilize sick days in order to spike pension benefits for the rest of their lives nor determining pensions based on the three highest years of salary rather than the highest five.
Making these changes alone will save millions, if not billions, as we cease placing new teachers into a failed system, reduce political infighting and provide TRS retirees with more stability, security and generosity than experienced by most Americans in either the public or private sector.
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at email@example.com and @bipps on Twitter.
Opponents of educational choice in Kentucky are apparently doubling down on their disproven, discredited and downright disgraceful claims about simply letting parents pick the schools they think are best for their children. Bruce Maples’ recent column is a case in point.
At issue is a proposed Kentucky tax-credit scholarship program.
Arizona was the first state to enact such a program back in 1997. Today there are 23 tax-credit scholarship programs in 18 states — including Illinois, Indiana and Virginia. Altogether these programs are helping more than 273,000 students who are from low- and moderate-income families, have special needs or are from the foster-care system. Absent tax-credit scholarship programs, these students would be stuck in schools that just don’t work for them.
Maples, however, insists that programs like these are just “a scam for the wealthy.”
On the contrary: the real scam is spending over $8.5 billion annually on the state’s public-schooling system, where stunning majorities of students are not proficient in the basics. Consider eighth grade math. Less than one out of three white students and less than one out of 10 black students is proficient. What about eighth grade reading? Just 37 percent of white students and less than one out of five black students is proficient.
For perspective. these black/white performance gaps are roughly equivalent to two school years in reading and three school years in math. What’s more, those gaps are virtually unchanged from 20 years ago.
An even bigger scam is what schooling in Kentucky would look like if we followed Maples’ claims against educational choice to their logical conclusion.
He insists that educational choice drains money from public schools. By that logic, all Kentucky parents should be required to send their children to assigned district public schools based on their current zip codes. Parents would not be allowed to move their families out of district, much less out of state, until their children graduated high school — because moving means draining their local public schools.
Of course, educational choice opponents like Maples don’t dare suggest such a draconian policy. Nor do they mention another inconvenient fact: when a student leaves a public school, that school is relieved of the costs associated with educating that student.
Still, opponents push their “draining” myth, which has been disproven by 27 empirical studies showing that educational choice programs actually save money. In fact, no scientific study has ever found that a choice program hurts public schools financially.
Adding to that body of evidence is a new analysis of tax-credit scholarship programs, which found that they save state and local taxpayers between $1,650 and $3,000 per scholarship student. Altogether, tax-credit scholarship programs have generated savings worth between $2 million and $223 million for their states.
Since the costs of funding scholarships are usually lower than the costs of educating students in public schools, states with tax-credit scholarship programs realize a net savings — savings that can be used to increase public-school funding.
But there’s another whopping fallacy in Maples’ argument. Like most educational choice opponents, Maples assumes that citizens’ earnings automatically belong to the government. So, when they claim tax credits for charitable donations, donors are in effect stealing from the state General Fund and public schools.
This assumption is ludicrous on its face, and the U.S. Supreme Court said as much in its 2011 majority ruling upholding the constitutionality of Arizona’s flagship tax-credit scholarship program. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority:
When Arizona taxpayers choose to contribute to STOs [School Tuition Organizations], they spend their own money, not money the State has collected from respondents or from other taxpayers. …Like contributions that lead to charitable tax deductions, contributions yielding STO tax credits are not owed to the State and, in fact, pass directly from taxpayers to private organizations. [The ACLU’s] contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. That premise finds no basis in standing jurisprudence. [Emphasis added.]
For all of Maples’ inventive, name-calling and blather about vast right-wing conspiracies, the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports educational choice.
Just-released research from the Urban Institute, for example, shows low-income students participating in Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program — the country’s largest — have higher college enrollment and completion rates than their public-school peers.
These findings add to the preponderance of scientific literature showing students participating in choice programs have better academic achievement and outcomes, including higher rates of high-school graduation, college enrollment and completion, as well as higher levels of civic engagement and toleration. Educational choice also has positive effects on school safety and students’ long-term mental health.
Public-school students who don’t participate in educational choice programs also benefit.
Of the 34 studies conducted on the effects of educational choice on public schools, 32 found positive effects, and two found neutral effects. No scientific study has ever demonstrated negative impacts.
Likewise, nine out of 10 studies to date on the effects of educational choice on racial integration found positive effects, and one found no effect. Again, no scientific study has ever demonstrated negative effects on racial integration from educational choice.
No wonder a solid majority of Kentucky voters across the political and socioeconomic spectrum support tax-credit scholarships. And perhaps that’s what really has Maples so miffed.
– Vicki Alger, Ph.D., is a Visiting Fellow with the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s first and only free-market think tank. She’s also a Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, D.C., and a Research Fellow with the Independent Institute in Oakland, California.
Proposed Social Studies Standards won’t fix it, either
It’s really sad. The Herald-Leader just reported how our state flunked a U.S history test in its article, “So why was Ben Franklin famous? Kentuckians flunk test of U.S. history knowledge.” The article is based on a recent report from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation that shows Kentucky ranks second to lowest for history knowledge based on questions given to applicants for US citizenship.
Per the Woodrow Wilson study, almost 3 out of 4 Kentuckians (71 percent) flunked.
What’s worse, the proposed changes to Kentucky’s public school social studies standards, which include the subject of history, offer no hope that things will improve.
You see, the proposed standards exhibit an almost complete disregard for important historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, Woodrow Wilson (also mentioned in the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s report) and many, many more.
It’s just unbelievable. It’s true that you can’t make Franklin memorable with bad instruction. But, you certainly can’t make him memorable if you don’t mention him at all.
Once you consider that the proposed social studies standards revision also completely ignores many, many other important people such as Abraham Lincoln (honest – he is nowhere mentioned), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (also AWOL), and other key Americans like Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers, you begin to understand that some of the 71 percent of the Kentuckians who could not pass the Woodrow Wilson test just might have had a hand in writing the vacuous standards the state is now being asked to accept as the central guidance for everything our kids will learn about social studies, history included.
The Kentucky social studies standards revision is currently in a public comment period, and it is time for every Kentuckian to speak out and demand better. To learn how to do this, click the “Read more” link.
News Release: Pension legislation reflects Bluegrass Institute’s paradigm regarding future – but not past – benefits
(FRANKFORT, Ky.) – While the Bluegrass Institute lauds new pension legislation filed Wednesday in the state House of Representatives for adopting the institute’s innovative paradigm prohibiting the guarantee of future benefit rates, the bill must be simplified and address other irresponsible spending policies that have created the current crisis in the commonwealth’s retirement systems.
Dr. William F. Smith, director of the Bluegrass Institute Pension Reform Team, praised House Bill 504 for recognizing that the state’s pension system administrators must be able to “adjust pension benefits prospectively when costs exceed the expectations regarding how the plans will perform. It may be the first time in the history of the commonwealth that legislation’s been filed addressing future benefit guarantees.”
However, Smith also called the 108-page bill “overly – and unnecessarily – complicated” when compared to the simple, straightforward proposal offered by the institute’s pension reform team.
“Here’s the plan in a paragraph: Benefits will neither be guaranteed prospectively nor increased retroactively; taxpayers, who are the employers, will have fixed payroll contribution rates and adjustments will be made by the plans’ administrators when the Actuarial Required Contribution exceeds 18 percent,” he said.
He called upon Rep. Scott Lewis, the bill’s sponsor, to simplify the legislation and follow the Bluegrass Institute’s paradigm by “making it more surgical” and focusing more on the right policy rather than pleasing political masters “by ignoring the fact that politicians in the future can go back and still enhance benefits retroactively, which is a major contributing factor to our current pension crisis.”
Bluegrass Institute board Chairman Aaron Ammerman called on Lewis to add parameters to the legislation that would require legislators, without exception, to make changes to the pension system in the future if certain funding levels fall below the threshold mentioned in the bill.
“The wording in the bill indicates that legislators could use their discretion and refrain from adjusting required contributions or benefits if necessary as is the stated goal of the legislation,” Ammerman said. “This needs to be a rules-based approach as we’ve offered in our paradigm. There should be an ironclad commitment between legislators, teachers and taxpayers regarding any future actions needed in order to maintain a financially viable pension system for teachers.”
KentuckyPensionTruth.com is a Bluegrass Institute website dedicated to providing transparent and truthful information regarding government-run retirement systems and the major threat pension crises pose to the economy of Kentucky and many other states.
For more information, please contact Jim Waters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 270.320.4376.