Teachers flunk limit on raises

IEA says new cap on end-of-career raises was 'buried' in budget legislation, will hurt students

Teachers march in Chicago last March. (Wikimedia Commons/spirobolos)

Teachers march in Chicago last March. (Wikimedia Commons/spirobolos)

By Ted Cox

Illinois teachers are up in arms about a cap on raises they say was slipped into a bill that passed along with the state budget earlier this year.

According to the Illinois Education Association, the bill caps end-of-career raises at 3 percent, down from the previous 6 percent, to prevent padding pensions. "But it actually goes a lot further than that," said Jim Reed, IEA's government-relations director.

Reed said that, because it doesn't necessarily specify or define "end-of-career raises," it will have "a chilling effect in putting a cap on all raises of 3 percent." He added that the limit on raises will also discourage teachers from seeking advanced degrees or other training that might have an effect on their pay levels.

"We believe students are the ones who lose out," Reed said. "We believe it will impact the quality of teachers who are hired."

Reed said particularly egregious was "the way it was handled," as it was "buried" deep in a 1,000-page piece of budget legislation.

According to Reed, the original cap on end-of-career raises was 20 percent. Many have pointed out, however, that led to abuses and played a part in the state's ongoing pension crisis. Reed called the previous cap of 6 percent an adequate compromise.

The IEA pointed out in a news release last week that "because educators can qualify for retirement benefits after five years of employment, the 3 percent cap encourages school districts to limit all educator salary increases to 3 percent."

Districts could authorize raises above that level, but would be responsible to pay a penalty to address the impact on pensions. "The districts don't really have the money to foot the bill," Reed said.

The IEA represents about 135,000 teachers outside Chicago as well as education support staff, higher-education faculty, retired education employees, and students preparing to become teachers, statewide.

It's supporting a bill sponsored by state Sen. Dale Fowler of Harrisburg that would reinstate the 6 percent cap.

"Gov. Rauner and the Illinois General Assembly did a disservice to our educators by capping end-of-career benefits at 3 percent,” said IEA President Kathi Griffin. “We encourage lawmakers to stand with Sen. Fowler in support of our teachers’ and our students’ futures."

"Many parts of Illinois are in the midst of a teacher shortage crisis, and I believe lowering the cap will only make that worse,” Fowler agreed. “This is why I’m sponsoring this legislation."

Yet Rich Miller's Capitol Fax pointed out last week that Fowler had voted for the bill that passed with the budget resetting the cap at 3 percent.

The General Assembly has gone back and forth on education, approving more funding for state colleges this year, and passing a bill meant to address the state's teacher shortage, especially acute downstate, even as it passed the bill capping teacher raises.

Gov. Bruce Rauner addressed the teacher shortage last month, signing a bill to ease license requirements for out-of-state, retired, and substitute teachers to get certified in Illinois. But he stood by the lowered cap for end-of-career raises.

"Pension spiking is a costly loophole that puts the state’s taxpayers on the hook for inflated pensions," said Rauner spokeswoman Elizabeth Tomev. "This spring the governor signed a bipartisan spending plan that should phase out this unfair and irresponsible practice. It was a win for Illinois taxpayers. If school districts choose to pay their employees spiked end-of-career salaries, the additional cost should be paid by the school districts."