Testimony of Jack Kelly
February 27, 2003
Representative Shaw, members, I am Jack Kelly with the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA), and I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about H.R. 743, the Social Security Protection Act of 2003.
H.R. 743 is an important bill, and TSTA concurs with many of the provisions in the bill. It is imperative that Congress provides safeguards for Social Security annuitants and the programs they depend on.
I want to talk with you about one provision in the bill, Section 418, which amends the eligibility requirements for qualifying for spousal benefits. H.R. 743 is very similar to H.R. 4070 that the House passed unanimously (425-0) last session. The change contained in Section 418 was not in the version of the bill that the House considered and approved last year. It was not even mentioned by Rep. Shaw on February 12, 2003 when he introduced H.R. 743 and outlined the purposes and the key provisions of the bill. Section 418 would change the requirement that was adopted by Congress and has been in place for about twenty years. The current law allows a person who, on his or her last day of employment, paid into both the state retirement system and Social Security to be eligible for spousal benefits. The change recommended in Section 418 will be detrimental to the Texas education profession and Texas educators. TSTA believes that this body has not had a chance to adequately discuss it. TSTA does not want to impair or even slow down the passage of changes contained in HR 743 that would stop abuse and fraud in the Social Security system. However, there are thirty other bills that have already been filed in this session of Congress that deal with proposed changes in Social Security, including some that would adjust benefits and eligibility for benefits. TSTA would encourage this Subcommittee to delete Section 418 from this bill and include consideration of this proposed change at the same time the subcommittee is considering some of the other bills that address changes in Social Security benefits.
If Section 418 passes it will negatively impact the ability of school districts to attract and retain quality teachers. There is already a critical teacher shortage in Texas. As some of you may know, Texas has a rapidly growing, diverse student population. We increase by about 70,000 students in average daily attendance every year — that is like adding a new school district the size of Austin or Ft. Worth each year. In addition to just more students and more diverse students, both ethnically and economically, Texas is trying to raise promotion and graduation requirements to better serve the students in our state. This week our third grade students are taking the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test that they must pass in order to be promoted to the fourth grade. Our high school students will soon have to take the recommended or advanced high school curriculum in order to get a diploma. That means more math, more science and more foreign language credits. That also means we need more teachers in those fields. In addition to the changes Texas has imposed upon itself, we, like the other states, are trying to meet the new standards Congress has imposed in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. A couple of those provisions require that, immediately for new hires and by 2006 for existing staff, all our support personnel must pass a test or have the equivalent of two years of college and that all our teachers must meet the new definition of "highly qualified."
A recent study by our State Board for Educator Certification showed that out of the 280,000 Texas teachers in 2001-02, nearly 43,000 were certified but teaching more than 50 percent of the day out of their field of certification (not allowed under NCLB), and another nearly 15,000 were teaching on emergency permits or some form of certification waiver (not allowed under NCLB). In addition to the fact that about 20 percent of the current staff does not meet the new standards, Texas has the additional problem that about half of all newly certified teachers quit within their first five years of teaching. We literally have hundreds of thousands of students every day who are being taught, at least part of the day, by uncertified or under-certified people. I wanted you to have an appreciation for the size of the problem Texas is addressing and why the change proposed in Section 418 makes the goal of attracting/retaining highly qualified educators even more challenging.
In Texas we have implemented, even before the federal NCLB recommendations, a Career to Classroom initiative. Texas sought to attract qualified people who wanted to make mid-life career changes and bring them into public education. One of the major hurdles to the success of that effort has been the impact on the person's Social Security benefits. A person who was working in private industry and building up a retirement through that company and a Social Security benefit did not want to take a lower-paying job and lose access to most of their Social Security benefits. Since 1,000 of the 1,050 school districts in Texas do not participate in Social Security, the person wanting to go into education would see their own Social Security benefits reduced because of the windfall elimination provisions. At present, they can still qualify for at least 50 percent of their spouse's benefits. Similarly, the potential reduction in Social Security benefits will make it more difficult for school districts attempting to recruit teachers from other states to come to Texas.
Finally, immediate passage of this provision would work an unfair financial hardship on the current school employees who having been planning their retirement based on the current law that has been in place for about 20 years. School employees are a dedicated group of people. They have generally worked with low pay and few benefits out of love for the students they served. It is almost unconscionable to think Congress would pass a law that tells these educators in 90 days you will lose access to about one-fourth (for many teachers) or one-half (for many support personnel) of the retirement benefits you had been planning on. That is a major change in a prospective retiree's budget. Please allow these educators to retire in dignity.
TSTA would urge Congress not to make this change. However, if you are going to enact language like Section 418 in this bill or as part of some future discussion of Social Security benefits, school employees deserve adequate time to adjust to a financial decision that is going to affect the quality of the rest of their lives.
Much as Congress did when it enacted the current government pension offset provision, you ought to pick a date in the future and provide that the current law will cover anyone who is eligible to retire at that point, whether they actually retire or not. This will protect our career educators who do not have time to replace the Social Security benefits they had been factoring into their retirement plans. It will give our younger educators advance notice that the current Social Security benefits will not be available to them and give them time to adjust to the change and plan their retirement and savings accordingly.
Again, I thank you for the opportunity to share TSTA's concerns about this bill and I look forward to working with your staff as H.R. 743 moves through the legislative process.