TOPEKA — Teachers in the state could move to a retirement plan with better long-term benefits if new legislation is advanced. The change may help stem the state’s increasingly severe teacher shortage.

Timothy Graham, director of government relations and legislative affairs for the Kansas National Education Association, pointed to state vacancies during a Tuesday hearing on the potential change. In fall 2023, the state had an estimated 1,810 teacher vacancies according to the Kansas State Department of Education. In fall 2022, there were 1,650 reported vacancies. 

“Educators have accepted lower compensation to follow their passion,” Graham said. “They’ve consistently endured stagnating wages on top of that. They’re facing growing demands from the public and growing disciplinary situations in the classroom. … And now, like many other college graduates, teachers are starting their careers with tremendous student loan debt. Ensuring that they have a dignified and comfortable retirement after years of public service is simply the right thing to do.” 

Kansas implemented current tiers for the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System in 2015, following financial strain. KPERS includes all of the state’s public sector workers, such as teachers, lawmakers and firefighters.

These workers fall into three retirement levels: KPERS Tier 1 for people enrolled before July of 2009, KPERS 2 for those entering between July of 2009 to December of 2014, and KPERS Tier 3 for everyone enrolled after January of 2015.

Rather than relying on a formula based on years of service and final average salary, as in the traditional pension plan of Tiers 1 and 2, KPERS Tier 3 ties a member’s lifetime benefit to contributions and interest earned throughout the member’s career in a 401K-like account.

Senate Bill 479, heard Tuesday in the Senate Committee on Education, would convert Tier 3 members to Tier 2 by January 2025 and allow teachers who become KPERS members in July of 2024 to enter Tier 2. Shorter-term teachers who would receive more benefits under Tier 3 could choose to stay in Tier 3.  

KPERS estimated 40,000 teachers are employed in Kansas school districts, about 15,500 of whom are KPERS Tier 3 members.

To showcase the difference in tiers, KPERS executive director Alan Conroy calculated the difference in benefits for a teacher who has been in the profession 30 years and retires at age 60 under the KPERS 2 and KPERS 3 tiers. A KPERS 2 teacher would receive $45,015, while a KPERS 3 teacher could receive between $26,978 to $36,866. 

Leah Fliter, assistant executive director of advocacy with the Kansas Association of School Boards, spoke in favor of the change during a March 5 hearing. 

Fliter said school board members within their organization felt the change could help attract and keep teachers in Kansas. 

“They felt an improved retirement benefit would not only attract young people to the profession but also encourage experienced teachers to remain in the classroom,” Fliter said. “Our members also stated that moving teachers to the improved benefit structure in Tier 2 would demonstrate respect for the profession.”