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Ideas matter. In addition to our work with clients, Bellwether Education Partners generates and gathers ideas and policy solutions, analyzes ongoing reform efforts, and writes about and discusses education and education reform. We believe that the work we do to improve education for all students benefits from thought leadership, analysis, and thoughtful discourse around emerging ideas, in order to help challenge leaders and leading organizations to think differently and improve, to coordinate efforts where possible, to inform policymakers and improve the political and policy context, and to share successful approaches with the public education field at large.

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West Virginia’s attempt to reshape its teacher retirement system in the 1990s and early 2000s is often cited as a cautionary tale to block other teacher pension reform efforts across the country.

Critics argue that because West Virginia replaced its pension fund with a defined contribution (DC), 401(k)-style plan in the early nineties, and then reverted back to the original pension plan in 2005, that pension reform can’t work. But that version of West Virginia’s story is misleading and incomplete.

In Bellwether’s new report, "Teacher Pension Reform: Lessons and Warnings From West Virginia" we modeled the wealth accumulation for teachers in the pension fund, before and after the reform, as well as the intervening DC plan. We found that all of the plans were poorly constructed from the outset and fail to provide a significant retirement benefit to a majority of West Virginia’s educators. The problem was not that pension reform cannot work, or that DC plans are inherently a better option. Rather, the key takeaway is that states should carefully examine their current retirement system and consider what reforms are necessary to ensure they provide high-quality retirement options to all educators in the plan.

Teacher pensions present a growing financial crisis across the country, to the tune of $500M. West Virginia’s experiences with reform can be instructive for states as they seek to navigate their pension problems.

When states consider incorporating DC plans, they should consider including five key features:

- Automatically enroll employees into the program;
- Set the shortest possible vesting period for teachers to qualify fully for their retirement benefits;
- Establish employer and employee contribution rates that, at minimum, total between 10 and 15 percent of salary;
- Provide low-cost options and life cycle funds that adjust an employee’s portfolio as she gets closer to retirement; and,
- Create an actionable and accountable plan to pay down unfunded liabilities.

Pension reform is not an escape from the obligations owed to current and retired teachers; rather, it is a change that allows state the opportunity to re-think how to provide tomorrow’s teachers with a more valuable benefit than they could have hoped for under existing plans. Failing to learn the lessons from West Virginia will, in the end, come at great cost to teachers and states alike.

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Fed up with stagnant salaries, teachers have gone on strike all across the country over the past few years. Meanwhile, education spending is hitting all-time highs — but, by and large, the money isn’t going to teacher salaries.

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Addressing the needs of students in this region requires deeper understanding and nuanced solutions that respond to the diversity of populations, geographies, urbanicity, and resources at work. "Education in the American South: Historical Context, Current State, and Future Possibilities", a comprehensive slide deck, aims to kick-start this discussion.

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"California's Special Education Funding System Creates Challenges and Opportunities for District and Charter Schools" looks at several features of California’s special education funding system which make it difficult for districts to serve students with disabilities and limit the ability of some charter schools to make decisions about the programs and services they offer for students with disabilities. Title image for Bellwether publication

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In our new report, "Changing Enrollment, Fiscal Strain, and Facilities Challenges in California’s Urban Schools" we analyzed enrollment trend data for district and charter schools in six of California’s urban centers: Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Fresno. In particular, we looked at how declines in district enrollment compared to growth in charter school enrollment within these communities.

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Insufficient: How State Pension Plans Leave Teachers With Inadequate Retirement Savings” establishes a framework to compare teacher retirement plans against an “adequate” annual retirement savings threshold. After defining those thresholds, the paper measures how the typical defined benefit (DB) plan covering public school teachers stacks up.

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"Preparing Teachers for Diverse Schools: Lessons from Minority Serving Institutions" looks at how schools can revise policies, practices, and curricula to address the impact of race, gender, and class, and thereby better prepare educators to serve an increasingly diverse student population.

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"Leading by Exemplar: Lessons from Head Start Programs" is a synthesis of findings drawn from an in-depth analysis of five high-performing Head Start programs from across the country.

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Leading by Exemplar: Case Studies of Head Start Programs is an in-depth analysis of five high-performing Head Start programs from across the country.

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