Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Teacher pension narrative needs more balance

As a veteran teacher with a decent awareness of what is going on regarding the State of Vermont’s push to shift the burden of retirement system fixes onto educators, it has been interesting to see media coverage of recent proposed changes to Vermont teacher pensions.
I have seen that the journalist generally starts by setting the context, which makes sense from a writing standpoint, but from a factual standpoint they often do so using a false narrative, based solely on information they have received from the state: “The pension is in crisis, and the only way to save it is to make teachers pay more, while reducing the amount they will receive in their pension.” The stories seem to start there, and then get into the state’s claims and teachers’ responses.
I would like to offer an alternative starting point, one that allows the journalist, and the reader, to think about the topic in a more fair-minded way:
“Vermont faces a teacher pension problem that stems directly from state government underfunding the pension system, claiming that the investments the system makes would cover the difference. They have not, and so the state is now heavily considering forcing teachers to pay more toward a reduced pension, and eliminating any cost of living increase. The burden of state negligence is now being put on the teachers who have always done EXACTLY what was asked of them.”
This approach would open up new important questions: Is there really a crisis as the state claims, or is this topic being used as an anti-teacher, anti-tax “dog whistle”? Interestingly, our local legislators have lately made it VERY clear that taxes aren’t going up due to education. In fact, Peter Conlon, a ranking member of the House Education Committee, clearly stated in a recent Addison Independent piece: “the latest numbers, released in January … showed the Education Fund is full with a small surplus predicted and all reserve funds meeting their goals” (Conlon, 2021).
There has also been a lot of talk in the media about how Vermont State budgets are actually doing quite well, and how one-time funds from the federal government will help the state work to fix problems. In one article in the Burlington Free Press, the author quotes Governor Scott in saying the pandemic has: “exposed and deepened older problems we’ve grappled with for decades… and it’s presented us with a rare opportunity — giving us more of the resources we need to make meaningful progress on both.” (Ring, 2021)
The author continues: “He (Scott) said there is an opportunity this year to fund projects that have been stalled for years, improving communities, services, outcomes and state government, laying the foundation for an economic resurgence without having to ask taxpayers to pay more.” Umm, Vermont teachers are taxpayers, correct? We are being asked to pay more, correct? We are being asked to reduce the amount we will receive in retirement again, correct? While at the same time being told how valued we are, and how appreciated we are for going into schools and working on the front lines with students during the pandemic.
I hope you can see why this is a confusing time to be a teacher.
I would ask that those in power, both the politicians who are guiding these changes and the journalists who are covering them, reflect on the narratives they are creating, and perpetuating, and whether those narratives are fair and true.
Bjarki Sears
Cornwall

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