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Foundation still determined to eliminate future pension plans for Oklahoma teachers

Brett Dickerson / Red Dirt Report
Bobby Stem (at the end of the table) leads the conversation while struggling to gain support.
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- An informal meeting Friday night, September 5th, between several education officials and Bobby Stem, a long-time lobbyist in Oklahoma, did not turn out the way that he wanted it to.

Stem's business card identifies him as the Executive Director of the Association of Oklahoma General Contractors. Those are the companies who build the big projects around the state, very often for the State of Oklahoma in the form of roads and bridges.

The original invitees to the meeting were some of the Oklahoma Education Association's board of directors and other officials of certain locals. The OEA, sometimes called a “teachers union,” is the primary organization that advocates for public teachers.

As the meeting developed, it was obvious that most around the table, especially those who are in decision-making positions with the OEA, were strongly opposed to his ideas. At least the people there just wouldn't budge. The meeting ended abruptly as those closely associated with the OEA stood up, thanked Mr. Stem for inviting them, and walked out. His proposal was not far off from what the Arnold Foundation has been promoting nationwide, which is to reduce the costs of public employee pensions by converting them to "defined contribution" plans from the current "defined benefit" plans that have been in place for years.

It was also a repeat of what was successfully pushed through the Oklahoma Legislature this last session for other state employees. The Arnold Foundation argument strongly resists any idea that tax subsidies for corporations should be reduced to pay for obligations to state and municipality employees. In their approach, the cost of reform, should be carried solely by the employees.

This year, Stem's idea is to get teachers to agree to the same kind of conversion of their pension plan. The proposal was to develop an “8-year plan”: to fund roads and bridges and to convert pensions for new teacher hires onto a defined contribution pension plan that would be similar to current 401(k) plans.

The difference is that the older public employee defined benefit plans make a commitment to the public employee that if they commit to so many years of service, they will be guaranteed a certain level of benefits -- thus, “defined benefits.” Any kind of “defined contribution” plan is structured so that they employee is required to invest a certain amount of money and then trust that good benefits will come out on the other end at retirement. The difference is in the certainty of benefit.

The biggest difference for public school teachers is that their government employer commits to them as they have committed to the mission of that particular government to educate the next generation of citizens. Defined benefits for teachers have resulted in a continuity of teachers due to the promise of a fair retirement outcome from years of uncommonly low pay compared to other similarly-educated people in our society.

Public school teachers are not just concerned about their own paycheck and benefits, though. They are concerned for the profession itself which counts on continuity of experienced teachers to know how to read each student as unique and not just a number.

According to public school teachers, if a transient short-term teacher corps is all that students have, their education will suffer. The Arnold Foundation has been met with extreme skepticism for its push nation-wide to convert the public pension plans. Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone magazine piece "Looting the Pension Funds" was the most damning indictment of the effort by that foundation and the Pew Trusts.

From the left-leaning, "Public pensions face a 30-year shortfall of $1.38 trillion, or $46 billion on an annual basis. This is dwarfed by the $80 billion a year states and cities spend on corporate subsidies." 

And that is similar to the position of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, which points out that unlike some other states and municipalities in the U.S., Oklahoma has made solid efforts and made great strides toward funding its pension commitments to it's public employees. 

From the sound of the meeting Friday night, we can expect the Oklahoma Legislature to take up new proposals for ending defined benefits pensions for public school teachers as they exist now. The foundations are pressing on.

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Brett Dickerson

Brett Dickerson is an adjunct teacher teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) courses for...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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