James V. Shuls, Ph.D.

As I wrote in my last blog post, a report authorized by the Kansas City Public School Retirement System (KCPSRS) suggests there is a 42% probability that the system will be insolvent in 20 years. This is serious. The retirement security of many hard-working teachers may be at risk. And, ultimately, the taxpayers may be at risk if the system goes belly-up. So, how can the system handle this problem?

As the authors of the KCPSRS analysis suggest, “long-term pension fund success is based on all three levers working together.” Those levers are contributions, benefit design, and investment design. As we’ve noted before, the plan is already shifting to riskier assets in an attempt to secure higher rates of return on investments. The system will likely keep the benefits design the same. So, what could they change in order to shore up the system? There is only one lever remaining: contributions.

Currently, teachers and their employers each pay 9 percent into the system for a total of 18 percent. An additional 12.4 percent is put into Social Security. The authors of the KCPSRS analyses suggest the system may need to increase contribution rates if they want to avoid insolvency. They project what the impact would be of increasing the contribution rate to 22 or 26 percent. Of course, increasing contributions will help the financial health of the system. It will also cost teachers.

Keep in mind that the contribution rate was set by the legislature at just 15 percent from 1999 to 2012. The legislature allowed for fluctuation in the contribution rate, but capped the maximum amount at 18%. In other words, increasing the contribution rate to the 22 or 26 percent highlighted in the KCPSRS report would not only require an act of the legislature, but possibly an act of a higher power. It is an increase that may be unprecedented in Missouri pension history.

Increasing contributions but not benefits means that employees of the future will get significantly less benefit from the pension system than their predecessors. They will, in effect, be paying for the benefits of the past.

The real question is how much are employees willing to pay for the same or a reduced benefit? Teachers today may be willing to put their 9% into the system, but would they be willing to put 11%? How about 13%? At what point do teachers decide they would rather have their contributions in a defined-contribution account, rather than an account that goes to pay for someone else’s benefits? 

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.