With Pennsylvania’s pension system for public school employees some $33 billion in debt, lawmakers are looking for ways to save a system that could add an additional $900 in taxes per family of four.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has opposed several reform measures, including one most recently outlined by Rep. Mike Tobash, which would create a hybrid plan for new employees that would keep the current plan for the first $50,000 earned then have a 401(k)-style plan kick in.
But what do teachers think of our pension crisis? We sat down for a podcast with Bill Frye, a 30-year, recently retired science teacher from Westmoreland County, and Steve Calabro, a mid-career educator with the public Agora Cyber Charter School.
Frye, who is also a farmer, says our current system is unsustainable: “Like any business, you have to be able to pay your bills now and in the future. When I hear of the huge debt, I think about everyone. The system as it is now won’t be able to support the current manner of payout.”
Calabro agrees, but said it took a while for his mind to change on the issue. “I myself just going back a short period of time was completely against getting involved in this issue at all because I didn’t want my pension hurt,” he said. “But…it’s not fair for me to say that I want to keep my current system, and then ask my son to give me an allowance as soon as he gets a job. We’re the ones who are supposed to be taking care of our kids, not the other way round, before they’re even into college.”
Both men agree that the PSEA has offered little in the way of solving the pension crisis, but a lot of misinformation. The main proposal the union offers is an extraction tax on Marcellus Shale drilling, which Frye says is untenable because gas companies would pass the tax onto landowners like him, and as wells dry up, there would be less to tax.
“My point was, if you’re going to fix the pension problem, you have to do it differently than the extraction tax, and that’s the mantra the PSEA has been putting out,” Frye said. “They started this before the run for the governorship ever came on. We’ve got to get the Shale revenue, we’ve got to get the Shale revenue, and I said no you don’t, because if you get it you’ll just spend it, or in a few years, you won’t have it anyhow.”
To hear the full 20-minute podcast, click here, and to learn more about the threats of teacher layoffs and shrinking education funding posed by our pension crisis, see our Triple Threat Pension Debt infographic.