Politics & Policy

Teachers Divided

Older teachers support Clinton, while younger teachers vote for Obama.

Senator Barack Obama sees a post-partisan future for America, but that doesn’t mean all divisions will disappear. Already the Democratic primary is shaping up to be a generational battle royale. In Iowa, Senator Hillary Clinton beat Obama by 20 points among voters over 50; by New Hampshire that margin grew to 30. Meanwhile, Obama beat Clinton by 46 points among voters under 30 in Iowa, and a slimmer but still significant 22 points among that demographic in New Hampshire.

Though we don’t know how Democratic teachers in those states voted, it’s not hard to imagine a similar generational sorting in their ranks, too.

First, consider older teachers. Not only are they of Clinton’s generation, they also tend to dominate the teacher unions — the very unions that are at the base of her party-mainstream support. While the National Education Association hasn’t yet endorsed a candidate, its New Hampshire affiliate came out for Clinton (and Huckabee on the Republican side). (The Iowa union kept its powder dry.) When you hear about the “Democratic establishment,” think teacher unions; their members regularly constitute some 10 percent of all delegates at the Democratic National Convention, after all. As the “establishment” candidate, then, Clinton is and will likely remain the teacher unions’ favorite.

Everybody knows that those unions’ leaders and most active members tend to be older. Why? Simply because senior teachers have the most at stake. After toiling in the classroom for decades for modest pay, they are finally nearing their big pay-off: a plush retirement with full family medical benefits. Protecting this retirement is teacher unions’ number one priority. They want a candidate who signals a steady course, promises job stability, and isn’t going to rock the boat. Clinton fits the bill.

The calculus is much different for younger teachers. Not surprisingly, they are much more open to change — Obama’s theme song. A few years ago, Public Agenda found that a majority of new teachers (55 percent) believed that districts should be able to use other indicators beyond years of experience and higher education to reward good teachers; yet only a third of veteran teachers felt the same way. And newbies were almost twice as likely to believe that merit pay would be effective in recruiting more of “the best and brightest” into teaching. So Obama’s (mild) flirtation with performance pay is much less threatening — and perhaps even exciting — for these younger teachers.

To be sure, there’s ample reason for young teachers to favor change: the current system is ripping them off. Pay is part of the problem; starting salaries aren’t bad compared to other first-time jobs, but income for other professionals tends to rise much faster, as their employers reward them for the added value that on-the-job experience brings — and provide performance-based bonuses to boot. Teachers, meanwhile, lumber along with slow-and-steady raises based on statewide or district-wide salary schedules.

But the greatest injustice for young teachers is the education system’s retirement scheme: these 20-something Obama voters are paying for the plush retirement of the fifty-something Clinton voters. That’s because education, along with the rest of the public sector (see here), is one of the last hold-outs of an old-style “defined benefits” retirement system. Teachers who put in their time are promised a pension check commensurate with a big percentage of their final pay. And those checks are funded in no small part by the contributions of younger teachers, who will themselves get little or nothing from the defined-benefit retirement plan unless they remain in public education in the same state for decades to come. Such a system might be fair if young teachers expect to get the same treatment some day — but how many Millenials plan to spend their entire career in any one job?

A reasonable system would provide a pension proportionate to time served; someone who teaches for five years should get a fifth of the pension of someone who teaches for 25. Yet according to this recent Fordham study on Ohio’s retirement system, that short-timer would actually receive a pension one-twenty-fifth the size of a veteran. What a scandal!

The time is ripe for a new deal for new teachers — one that accelerates the salary schedule dramatically and offers rewards for strong performance and willingness to tackle tough assignments. A plan that provides a 401(k)-style retirement plan that teachers can take with them wherever — and into whatever lines of work — they go. Such an approach would be very attractive to Obama’s voters — and terrifying to Clinton’s. Let the battle rage on.

 –Michael Petrilli is a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and author, with Frederick M. Hess, of No Child Left Behind: A Primer.


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