Let's Figure Out How PERA Can Fit Into Colo. School Finance Reform Debates

The long-awaited draft of the big school finance reform bill (144 pages in all its glory) is finally here this week. You can rest assured I will have more to say in the coming days as my Education Policy Center friends dig more deeply into it.

For now, I just have to say how glad I am that Colorado’s state treasurer Walker Stapleton is trying to bring another very important issue into the conversation:

The fiscally conservative treasurer points out that the PERA board has released reports indicating that by 2018, 20.15 percent of the budget for teacher salaries will be directed to PERA.

“I don’t want there to be a bait and switch for voters to think that they’re funding a better, improved public school education system, and to find out that dollars are being diverted to fund an unsustainable retirement system,” Stapleton told an audience of Action 22 members at the Capitol on Wednesday. “That is not fair. I will continue to press that issue, even if I make myself unpopular in the process.”

Those who prefer to listen rather than to read might find Stapleton’s interview on yesterday’s Mike Rosen Show to be enlightening. A careful look at the numbers gives the lie to the notion that K-12 funding increases are primarily “for the kids.” PERA contributions are eating up more and more of school budgets.

Sensible ideas have been set forth to solve the funding crisis in PERA. It’s only sensible to discuss the issue in the context of changing how Colorado funds K-12 education and whether taxpayers should cough up more to pay for it.

For those willing to embrace some more modest measures, here’s some new food for thought concerning possible pension reform: What happens if you give teachers the choice of a traditional defined benefit (DB) plan or a defined contribution (DC) plan like most private-sector workers have? A new Fordham Institute study by Matthew Chingos and Martin West finds that, when given that choice, about 3 in 10 Florida teachers jumped the DB ship and opted for the DC plan.

While it doesn’t provide nearly enough savings to comprise the whole package of reform, it’s certainly better to give teachers more options rather than fewer. If that choice is a beneficial one, you probably don’t have to be bullied into it.

As many times as I expect to bring up the big school finance bill in future blog posts, I hope you don’t consider me a bully for rubbing your face in it. After all, you do have a choice whether to read what I’m thinking. I hope you find it to be time well spent.