Recruitment & Retention

Could Retired Teachers Be the Answer to Shortages? It’s Complicated

By Madeline Will — October 11, 2022 6 min read
Female teacher taking the first step into a circular photo of a dark classroom with a spotlight shining on an empty chair in front of a chalkboard.
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To fill teacher vacancies, states are luring retired educators back into the classroom with financial incentives—including letting them “double dip” by earning a paycheck on top of their pension.

At least a half-dozen states have passed or are considering legislation this year to entice teachers out of retirement, an EdWeek analysis has found. Typically, states have policies that limit the amount retired educators can work or earn while collecting retirement benefits, but many of these new laws are lifting those restrictions in the face of shortages.

This recruitment strategy is often considered in times of high teacher vacancies, but experts note that it seems to be an increasingly popular option for state policymakers this year as a patch to the embattled teacher pipeline. The approach can be expensive for districts, but advocates say that it’s putting experienced teachers in front of students who need them.

“Generally, bringing back retired teachers is probably a better approach than simply lowering the bar for new teachers,” said Heather Peske, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which advocates for more-rigorous teacher preparation. (This year, some states have eased certification requirements and, in a couple cases, even gotten rid of bachelor’s degree requirement to bring new teachers into classrooms.)

Peske noted that retired teachers have years of classroom experience and have demonstrated their content knowledge on licensing tests in the past. “Both of those attributes are connected to research that shows an impact on student learning,” she said.

Teachers tend to retire younger than other working professionals because their pension wealth spikes once they reach a certain age or length of service, said Chad Aldeman, the policy director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University who studies teacher pensions.

That means that teachers often retire in their 50s or 60s, after 25 or 30 years of experience. In many cases, those teachers want to continue working, Aldeman said, but they have no incentive to do so without reducing their pension wealth in the long term. Although veteran teachers are at the high end of the pay scale, there are diminishing returns to their retirement benefits after a certain point in their career, and it’s not in their best financial interest to keep working past that point, Aldeman said.

Retired teachers who want to still work in some capacity often turn to substituting, but finding another full-time job has typically been out of reach without jeopardizing their pension.

Yet many school districts are still searching for qualified teachers to staff their classrooms. In a nationally representative survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in September, just 21 percent of district leaders said they had no unfilled teaching positions.

New state laws let retired teachers ‘double dip’

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed a law in January that allowed teachers who have been retired for at least six months to come back to work in a position of “critical need,” as determined by the state commissioner of education. The retired teacher can continue drawing their retirement benefits on top of a salary, although the state doesn’t have to contribute additional money to the pension while they’re working.

Returnees are limited to a one-year contract, which can be renewed only twice—unless the state approves a further renewal as “being in the best interests of the school district.”

The Newark, N.J., school district has hired about 36 retired teachers, NJ.com has reported—and is paying them all $92,000 this school year. (The 40,000-student district employs about 2,800 teachers.)

“Teachers are in a very good place right now to negotiate salaries,” Yolanda Méndez, the assistant superintendent for the district, told NJ.com. “We wanted to make it very attractive.”

In New York, retired teachers typically lose their pension payments if they return to work and receive a salary of more than $35,000, but the state suspended the income cap this year. At least one school district in the state, Syracuse City, is rehiring retired teachers at their prior salary. So far, the 20,000-student district has rehired 19 retired teachers, a district spokesperson said.

In Tennessee, meanwhile, Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed a measure this summer that temporarily—until July 1, 2025—allows retired educators to return to work as K-12 teachers for a full school year without the loss or suspension of their retirement benefits. During their re-employment, their retirement benefits are reduced to 70 percent of what they would have received if they hadn’t returned to work.

In New Mexico, the governor signed a law in June to allow retired teachers to go back to the classroom for an additional three years, without salary or work hour limits. They previously would have been forced to suspend their retirement if they returned to the classroom and could only earn up to $15,000.

“This is a win-win for New Mexico teachers and New Mexico students,” Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

Similar legislation was considered in Louisiana but did not pass this year. New Hampshire lawmakers are also considering enacting such a policy this fall, according to news station WMUR 9.

Experts warn it’s not a long-term solution

Teachers’ retirement benefits are usually determined by a formula: the teacher’s final average salary times the number of years of service times a multiplier. For example, under a system with a 2 percent multiplier, a teacher retiring with a final average salary of $70,000 and 25 years of service would collect an annual pension of $35,000. (About 40 percent of public school teachers are not covered by Social Security.)

Aldeman said allowing retired teachers to collect a regular salary on top of their pension has led to some questions of fairness and whether it’s the best use of districts’ limited money. In many cases—like in Newark and Syracuse—previously retired teachers are earning a generous salary, far more than a regular first-year teacher would make.

See also

Thousands of teachers marched and rallied in downtown Los Angeles on Dec. 15, 2018. A month later, more than 30,000 educators went on strike for a pay raise, smaller class sizes, and more support staff.
Thousands of teachers marched and rallied in downtown Los Angeles on Dec. 15, 2018. A month later, more than 30,000 educators went on strike for a pay raise, smaller class sizes, and more support staff.
Damian Dovarganes/AP

State policymakers, however, say the approach is necessary to meet the staffing needs of school districts. In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, issued an executive order last month aimed at removing obstacles to getting qualified teachers in the classroom.

“Our children are still recovering from devastating learning loss and other effects of school shutdowns,” Youngkin wrote. “We must pursue a comprehensive approach to supporting teacher recruitment and retention efforts.”

Part of that approach, he said in the order, is making sure retired teachers can easily renew their licenses and get a new teaching job. Since 2001, teachers in the state who come out of retirement to teach in an area of critical shortage can both receive a new salary and continue collecting their pension.

The top critical shortage areas in Virginia this year are elementary education, special education, middle school education, career and technical education, and middle and high school math.

It’s not the first time Virginia has made that pitch. In 2016, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, sent a letter to more than 500 retired teachers asking them to consider going back to work in a specific school district outside of Richmond that was plagued with a high number of vacancies.

Still, NCTQ’s Peske said the approach is a “Band-Aid solution” to persistent teacher shortages.

“Rehiring retired teachers does little to ameliorate the underlying reason why there are shortages in some schools and in some subjects and why those shortages persist,” she said. “It needs to be a short-term solution.”

After all, Peske noted, research has shown that constant churn in schools is not good for student learning or employee morale: “And these teachers probably want to go back into retirement soon.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as Could Retired Teachers Be the Answer to Shortages? It’s Complicated

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