OPINION: If we want to keep good teachers in Alaska, we need defined-benefit retirement

In the spring of 2022, I found myself in a strange, yet increasingly familiar position. At 44 and with 16 years of experience, I was once again the youngest and least senior member of the science department at Chugiak High. In the 15 years since I joined this school that I love, we had hired roughly a dozen science educators who were young and full of energy and ideas. In that time, exactly zero of them had stayed for more than a few years. While reasons vary, the most common thread in the mass exodus of educators is the simple fact that we are the only state that has neither an option to earn a pension nor access to Social Security.

While retention has become increasingly difficult, so too has it become challenging to attract quality educators. When I started as department chair, we would often have dozens of candidates for a single open position. In recent years, we at times have received a single application — perhaps two if we’re lucky. Colleagues at other schools often report zero applicants. Currently there are hundreds of unfilled positions across Alaska’s schools. Education has always been a difficult profession, but this dearth of applicants is an entirely new phenomenon.

I recently attended a national science education conference thanks to outside financial support. While there, I had many conversations about living and teaching in Alaska. Several times, educators expressed interest in moving to Alaska to further their careers. Unfortunately, without exception, every one of those teachers immediately lost interest once they learned that Alaska is the only state without a secure retirement.

This is where we’re at. We want a vibrant economy, but we cling to a system that disincentivizes staying in Alaska. We pour money into training our professional workforce, then we push them out the door with short-sighted fiscal policy. The irony is that the current retirement plan does not save money. If anything, it costs the state more in wasted training dollars, recruitment costs due to the revolving door we’ve created, state retirement contributions that leave with those having only a few years of service, and worse public safety and educational outcomes due to our inability to attract and retain quality professionals.

While my sons have had many wonderful teachers, I want more. I want the best education possible for them, and for my students as well. That is only possible if we can attract and retain the highest quality educators. Our legislators rightly demand great educational outcomes, yet they cut funding and leave educators with no hope of a secure retirement. Is it any wonder that teachers are leaving in droves? If we want better outcomes, we need to invest in our educators. If we want effective public safety, we need officers and state troopers who have the incentive to stay and invest in their communities.

We once led as a state. Alaska was a beacon of opportunity. People came to work and explore, but they stayed because Alaskans had the foresight to invest in an economy that would perpetuate success and opportunity. That drew my parents here in the ’60s, and it kept me here in the ’90s. We no longer lead. Instead, as the only state without a secure retirement for public servants, we have abdicated our responsibilities. Public safety and education are the cornerstones of a thriving economy. Without the ability to recruit and retain the best possible officers, firefighters, educators and more, young families and graduating scholars will seek opportunities elsewhere and our economy will stagnate. If we want a brighter future, we must invest in it — or, more accurately, we must invest that which we already spend more wisely. Instead of throwing training dollars away, instead of funding retirements that leave Alaska after a mere five years of service, we need to invest those same dollars in keeping our most effective and most dedicated public servants here.

Brian Mason is a science teacher and commercial fisherman who lives in Eagle River.

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