Public school workers say ‘dignified’ retirement now out of reach

Pennsylvania educators are facing the harsh reality that the retirement they were promised decades ago is no longer possible. The reason for this is the record inflation and benefits that have been “frozen” in time for the last 20 years. Thomas Curry, a former art teacher who worked for the Punxsutawney Area School District for 40 years, spoke at a joint hearing of the House and Senate Democratic Policy Committees about how he has watched his pension benefits cover less and less since he retired in 1999. Other retirees must sacrifice medication or health care treatments just to make ends meet. Unfortunately, the legislature’s unwillingness to authorize a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for them is the main driver behind this declining quality of life.

Curry is one of roughly 31,000 retired public school educators represented by the Pennsylvania State Education Association who are struggling to make ends meet on an average monthly pension benefit of $847 that has remained unchanged since 2002. According to Art Steinberg, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, between 1968 and 2002, the legislature approved COLAs every three or four years that kept up with inflation. This, combined with skyrocketing prices, low benefit multipliers, and salaries that no longer keep up with inflation, is driving future educators away.

The Pennsylvania School Employees Retirement System represents 248,000 active members and 247,000 retired members, with net assets totaling $17.2 billion. Yet, the $1.4 billion the system spends annually on fees and accrued interest to private money managers is a sum that could easily support cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. Steinberg urged the committees to approve a COLA for public retirees and tie future adjustments to the consumer price index.

Lawmakers’ salaries, for example, climb at the rate of inflation. This year, elected officials in the House and Senate received a COLA in excess of 8%, boosting their salaries above six figures. While lawmakers on the committee agreed COLAs for public retirees are long overdue, CPI strings proposed for other policies worry Republicans in the House and Senate. They fear that increasing 911 fees and rental rebate programs in line with inflation rates could create a $10 billion budget deficit and trigger massive tax increases.

The administration’s 2023-24 budget proposal anticipates spending $2.9 billion on public school retiree benefits, but without action to address the issue of COLAs, the retirement of Pennsylvania’s educators will continue to be a struggle.


Janet Donahoe obituary 1935~2023

A graduate of Wilson College and The Catholic University of America, Janet taught English and Latin in Pennsylvania and was a school librarian in Virginia. 

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