State must provide older teachers with incentive to retire now

Guest Editorial
For the last three months, the specter of teacher layoffs has been the central issue for public schools in Michigan. So, we have to wonder why it has taken the Legislature so long to move on a plan that could help many teachers stay out of the unemployment line.

State House and Senate lawmakers left Lansing last week at a stalemate on a bill to encourage older teachers to retire. The incentive would create openings in the teaching ranks, plus free up money ($400 million or more next year) because younger teachers are cheaper.

This is a delay with serious consequences, and it may be too late to fix the damage. Originally, Gov. Jennifer Granholm urged lawmakers to reach an agreement by April 1. Now, we’re looking at today as the earliest possible for resolution.

In the meantime, many school districts have chosen to take action right away. They have issued layoff notices to thousands statewide. Some education groups are suggesting that any resolution from today onward will be too late to generate any real savings.

While disappointed, we are not so sure. Many school districts have continued to wait rather than issue layoff notices. A quick agreement between the House and Senate might still clear the way for good numbers of the 39,000 retirement-eligible school employees to leave.

So, how can lawmakers find common ground? Surprisingly, it would not be that difficult. There is broad consensus behind increasing the pension that teachers can receive if they retire now.

School employees who remain in the system, meanwhile, would pay 3 percent of salaries toward pension and retiree health-care costs. That is a significant shift of money that schools would pay otherwise.

The real holdup involves the fine print. Democrats are insisting on language that guarantees health care for life for school retirees. Republicans say there should not be a guarantee. It seems to us this can be resolved–perhaps by offering the benefit to those with 25 or more years of service.

It is hard to believe that an agreement has taken this long, or that it might not come to pass at all. If it does not, public schools certainly will start the next school year squeezed as tightly as anyone can imagine.