The allure of money can cast an aura of respectability on actions that otherwise couldn’t pass the smell test. Money somehow makes good people strive mightily to justify the unjustifiable.
This year, we’ve had ample opportunity to observe this phenomenon play out in the headlines and on TV. The Harken Energy and Halliburton companieswhile being led by two of America’s most patriotic citizensset up subsidiaries in a Caribbean tax haven, for instance. Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney deny the moves were intended to help their companies dodge taxes that otherwise would have been due and payable to the dear, old USA.
Nah, banking money in the Cayman Islands wasn’t a tax scam. Bush and Cheney just needed an excuse to stroll down Seven Mile Beach.
Now, “money” and “educators” are not words that normally fit comfortably together. In fact, school folk are famously underpaid, and it’s a chronic shame. But at least educators have long enjoyed the compensating satisfaction of feeling morally superior to their brothers and sisters in big businesspoor but pure, you might say. Well, that perch on the higher plain just got a tad precarious. As we report on the Front Page of this issue, some funny business is going on in certain education circles these days. And, yep, it has to do with money.
Nearly 5,000 teachers in Texas (4,795) and Georgia (24) have slipped through a Social Security loophole that, according to the congressional watchdogs at the General Accounting Office (GAO), ultimately could wind up costing other taxpayers $450 million.
And that’s probably just the beginning. The exception apparently is available to educators in at least 15 states, among some 2,300 non-Social Security government pension programs.
Educators in such pension programs can work for just one day in a job covered by Social Security and qualify for spousal benefits under Social Security. In exchange for as little as $3 in Social Security tax, a teacher and spouse can receive as much as $150,000 in benefits during their lifetimes.
Certain members of Congress and some editorial writers have decried educators using this loophole, pointing out that to do so will further destabilize a Social Security system soon to be reeling under the weight of millions of retiring Baby Boomers.
Unless Congress acts swiftly to slam down this window of opportunity, educators elsewhere certainly will begin to take advantage of the dodge. Teacher unions already are holding workshops on how to do it. (Memo to file: Call Paul Houston to see about the workshop topics at next year’s American Association of School Administrators conference.)
An editorial in the Omaha World-Herald described the tactic as thousands of public school teachers finding “a way to make a bad situation worse.” But Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, puts it differently: “The [General] Accounting Office missed the real inequity . . . Teachers are not abusing the system; they are being abused by the system.”
My wife, Bobbie, incidentally, insists the genuine outrage is this: Married couples who both have spent their working lives paying into Social Security usually don’t receive benefits equivalent to what they would receive if they merely lived together. (I tell her not to worry about the economic loss, because our wedded bliss is priceless. “Take out the garbage,” she replies.)
Regardless of the larger social implications, it’s hard to fault educators for doing what they can to attain a more secure retirement for themselves and their families. After all, this is not a case of some Enron chieftain silently selling off hundreds of millions in stock just before putting his loyal employees out of work. In this situation, one citizen’s loophole might really be another’s “fully justified exception.” And yet, there is a villain in this piece.
To my mind, it’s the Texas school districts taking the opportunity to cash in on what, at best, is a questionable practice. Some 31 Texas districts reportedly have been involved so far. Some of them are charging teachers as much as $500 just to apply for a one-day job. One district calls this an “employment application fee” and even promotes it on its official web site. According to the GAO, one Texas district, which the watchdogs didn’t name, has raked in $283,000 in such fees.
I know budgets are tight and times are tough, but has it really come to this? If school districts are going to start down this shady road, how are we going to take comfort from the fact that, if we’re still poor, at least we’re pure?
Perhaps this retreat from purity is just the way of all flesh. As Mae West once put it, delivering the line in her patented, hard-boiled drawl: “I used to be pure as the driven snow, but over the years . . . I’ve drifted.”