Calif. commish advises teachers give up pensions

California pensions
California has joined several other states in asking its teachers and other public workers to give up their pensions in favor of 401k plans.
CBS News

Updated 6.13.11

It's a trend that's gaining momentum in states across the country, and public workers don't like it. They're being told their prized defined-benefit pensions can no longer be afforded.

CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy reports that many teachers are beginning to feel like there is a public campaign to scapegoat them for greater problems.

Family science night is a chance for teacher Julie Van Winkle to show parents the experiments she's been doing in her classroom. The 32-year-old has been teaching for seven years. It's her first year here at Nightingale Middle School in Los Angeles, but Julie, who makes about $58,000 per year, already feels like a veteran of what some call a war against teachers.

"I fought tooth and nail to keep my job and now it looks like I am going to have to do that to keep my pension," Julie said.

Like public workers across the country, Julie considered her pension one of the prime perks of teaching. After 35 years on the job she would get 80 percent of her salary in retirement. Yet with 203,000 california teachers already collecting a pension today, and up to another 50,000 looking to retire in the next decade, some officials say the state simply can't afford it.

The solution for some states is asking public workers to give up part or all of their fixed pensions and combine it with a 401k plan.

"The pension system is not sustainable. The pensions will get paid but it will come at the expense of other services," said Stuart Downs with the Little Hoover Commission.

Workers don't want to lose their pension. That's because the fixed amount of money contributed by the state is guaranteed. With 401k's, the state and the teacher contribute, but the money is managed by the employee. 401ks are tied to the stock market. If the market is up, the worker could make more money than with a pension. If it's down, however, they risk losing their savings.

After 40 years teaching geometry and calculus, Marty Himmelman doesn't think he could have managed a 401k.

"401(k) is for Wall Street. If you are on Wall Street, you love 401ks, but if you are an employee thinking about your retirement, you want a fixed benefit," Marty says.

Julie Van Winkle says pensions can help keep teachers motivated.

"You want teachers who want to get better and better, and that is another perk. With a defined pension, it is in your interest to stay in this profession," Julie says.

There's no other place Julie would rather be than in the classroom.

Editor's note: In the case of Julie Van Winkle she would have to work until she was 60-and-a half--years-old to collect 80 percent of her salary.

That would mean Van Winkle had worked 35 years in continuous service for the California school system, not the 25 years as previously stated.