The Chicago Teachers Union saw a victory this past spring when Illinois legislators increased the number of days retired teachers can substitute teach without losing pension benefits by 20%, from 100 days a year to 120.
The state is also extending through 2021 a law that lets retired teachers go back to teaching for a full school year without the usual “return to work” restrictions, such as the “post-retirement” work limit of 120 days or 600 hours. The caveat, though, is that the teaching job must be in a district specifically determined by the regional superintendent to have a shortage in the subject area the retiree will be teaching.
District leaders also see such policies as one strategy for addressing vacancies.
“As a short-term solution, I completely support the return, penalty-free, for retired teachers to return to the teaching force,” said Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park, Illinois.
Pulling retired teachers back into schools is one of several solutions states and districts are using to address teacher shortages, which hit high-need schools the most and are especially evident in the areas of math, science and special education.
“Some states have sought to utilize this approach as a way to address acute shortages in some rural areas, which often struggle to recruit new or younger teachers to communities farther from the urban centers where they may have completed their teacher preparation,” according to a Learning Policy Institute report released last summer.
Having the expertise
Extending the careers of existing teachers is not a long-term solution, in part because it comes with higher costs to districts and states, due to the salary level veteran teachers have reached as opposed to the starting salaries of new teachers.
But having veteran educators back at the helm can bring unique benefits, according to district leaders. Retired teachers can serve as mentors to new, inexperienced peers. Also, teachers with decades of experience often tend to view the profession as a lifelong calling and are able to impart inspiration to novice teachers, who may benefit from that kind of big-picture vision.
“A recently retired teacher has the expertise to enter a classroom with no additional professional learning,” said Gladys Cruz, district superintendent at Questar III Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which provides educational and administrative support to 23 school districts in upstate New York. “She has the content knowledge, pedagogy and understands the state’s standards and assessment systems in place. She also has the required certifications to teach.”
The practice of rehiring retired teachers has been gaining popularity for several years. The primary challenge to rehiring retired teachers is pension security. In general, retired state employees who are collecting a pension can’t be re-employed by the state until they’ve been retired for a set amount of time, typically at least six months — if at all.
Several state lawmakers have been moving to introduce workarounds to that hurdle. In 2016, then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe sent letters to 539 retired educators, enjoining them to come back to work, especially in the high-need city of Petersburg and especially in the subject areas of math and science.
Since 2001, retired teachers in Virginia have been allowed to step back into high-need classrooms while still collecting their pensions. But McAuliffe’s missives represented the first time Virginia retirees were actively encouraged to take advantage of that little-known law.
In Sarasota, Florida, state Rep. Margaret Good is trying to make one change to state retirement laws: an exception to the rule that retired teachers can’t be rehired by any state agency within six months of retirement to work as substitute teachers. Six months, some say, is too long considering the lack of qualified teachers.
Meanwhile, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is now considering legislation that would aim to entice retired teachers to work in one of the state’s 1,400 Title I schools or in schools that have been given a D or F grade in the state’s accountability system. Teachers could earn as much as $40,000 a year in salary, along with their regular retirement benefits.
As in many states, colleges in Wisconsin are graduating fewer education majors. To combat that decline, Gov. Tony Evers has budgeted to allow for districts to pay retired teachers who return to the classroom both their pension and a salary. The move would reverse a previous crackdown on “double dippers.”
The state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Education Funding advocates the move, noting the education of the state’s youth is more important than foiling a relative few taking advantage of the system. Georgia and Michigan have also revised regulations around retirement pay to make the option of returning to work feasible for retired teachers.
But in some states, efforts to get retired teachers back to work have been less successful.
In Montana, where the starting salary for teachers is the lowest in the nation, according to National Education Association salary data, districts are especially struggling to fill open teacher slots. Recent legislation would have tweaked state retirement system regulations to make it easier for retired teachers to get back to work, but the Montana teacher’s union opposed the move, invoking “double dipping.”
Finally, the Mississippi Great Teachers Act of 2019, intended to alleviate the teacher shortage, would have included a provision to allow retired teachers to receive their pensions and work in the classroom full time, not just as substitutes. Some retired public school teachers have been heading to private schools to teach, and the intention behind the bill was to keep them where they are most needed.
The bill passed the House Education Committee, but some were concerned about the unintended effects of its passage on the solvency of Mississippi’s public employee retirement system. The bill died in the House Appropriations Committee.
Stabilizing the profession
While Cruz in New York sees the benefits of recruiting veteran teachers, she also sees the challenges involved.
“A problem we face in New York is that retirees have a salary cap that is well below a starting salary for teachers. A solution to this could be legislation that removes the salary cap for recently retired teachers,” she said. “This could increase the pool of teacher candidates for our systems facing shortages and put highly qualified [teachers] in our classrooms. I truly believe that we are losing teacher talent to retirement.”
Lubelfeld, in Illinois, adds that his district would still “ask that the retired teacher go through our evidence-based, multi-step selection process.” And while recruiting retired teachers might be one step toward addressing immediate needs, sustainable strategies are needed to bolster and stabilize the profession in the years ahead, he said.
“The teacher shortage is real, and I think long-term, as a nation, we have to restore our faith and value in the nation’s public schools,” Lubelfeld said. “We need to restore the appeal for college teacher preparation programs, so we can sustain the supply and demand for teachers.”