Take steps to deal with teacher exodus

The General Assembly decided to phase out the TERI program next year in part to relieve pressure on the state’s pension plan. But lawmakers need to be prepared for the likely flood of retirements when the perk ends.

TERI stands for Teacher Employee Retirement Incentive program. Initiated in 2000, it allowed teachers to work up to five years after they officially retire, banking their pension benefits in a special account until they are paid in a lump sum at the end of the program. The goal was to entice experienced teachers to stay in the classroom past eligible retirement age, sharing their expertise with younger teachers.

The program eventually was expanded to other public workers, and thousands took advantage of the offer. But a 2012 law designed to shore up the state’s pension system phases out the TERI program as of June 30, 2018.

TERI alone accounts for an estimated $2 billion of the state’s $20 billion pension debt, which had threatened to grow out of control. Ending the TERI program and other reforms should help slow the growth of pension debt.

Public workers who have retired can keep working after TERI ends, but the 2012 law suspends their benefits after they have earned $10,000 for the year. State officials predict that few teachers or other state workers will keep working past retirement age once TERI has expired.

That, too, could have an upside, providing opportunities for younger employees to ascend the professional ladder. But it also is like to result in a mass exodus, especially by teachers.

Shutting down TERI means about 7,500 teachers and state and local government workers could leave their jobs next year, according to the Public Employee Benefit Authority. And that could be in addition to the exit of baby-boom era teachers who are reaching retirement age each year.

South Carolina already is suffering from a serious teacher shortage. Last year, nearly 6,500 teachers didn’t return to the classroom, and fewer college students are pursuing teaching as a career.

Recruiting and retaining teachers, especially in poor rural school districts, is an increasing challenge. And now, with the end of the TERI program, the situation is likely to grow worse.

But lawmakers could ease the problem by raising pay for teachers and other public employees. Teacher pay remains not only well below the national average but also below the Southeast average, which prompts many teachers trained in South Carolina to leave the state for greener pastures.

S.C. lawmakers have not given state workers an across-the board pay raise during five of the past 10 years, including this year. Average S.C. state worker salaries lag those of public workers in other states by 15 percent and lag salaries for S.C. private-sector jobs by 18 percent.

If South Carolina wants to attract teachers and keep them in the classroom, it has to offer competitive salaries and added incentives to teach in poorer school districts that can’t supplement teacher pay to the extent that wealthier districts can. The state also needs to find ways to persuade more young people to pursue teaching as a career.

Phasing out the TERI program will contribute to what is likely to be a serious shortage of teachers and other public workers. But armed with that knowledge, lawmakers should be able to take steps to stem the exodus and bring new people into the system.