Retirement options for teachers and other school district employees could previously be compared to the “wild, wild west,” says Bruce Corcoran, managing director of institutional development for the K12 market at TIAA-CREF, national financial services company serving educators and other non-profit workers. Since the 1960s, public school workers have had a plethora of retirement options through 403(b) plans, although teachers have recently begun relying on them heavily as their pensions continue to shrink. 403(b) plans differ from 401(k)s in that participants don’t receive the same fee disclosure or protections. Teachers have traditionally worked with dozens of commission-paid agents pushing various programs and received little to no guidance. To clear up much of the confusion, the industry-led 403(b) Transparency Taskforce, with the National Education Association (NEA), has unveiled a new tool to help sift through the noise.
The 403(b) Model Disclosure Form, as it’s called, will set transparency standards and give school employees a comparison of their investment options and the fees that brokers and providers receive. School districts will adopt to use the model and ask for the necessary information from their providers to be simplified on a form for teachers to review.
“We wanted to make this straightforward and didn’t want to add a whole layer of administrative burden to districts,” says Lisa Sotir, general counsel for member benefits at NEA. “We wanted teachers to be able to compare and see what they’re getting for their money.”
Another route for simplifying these plans is through competitive bidding, says Corcoran. Arizona recently did competitive bidding at the state level and settled on one vendor, and Iowa followed suit, choosing five to be used throughout the state.
A 2010 report from TIAA-CREF, “Controlled Access Model: Efficiency, Flexibility, and Savings for Teachers and Plan Sponsors,” found that screening providers to keep fees down can save an employee tens of thousands of dollars.
“As the market’s started to change, it’s become clear that managing one retirement plan is easier than five or even 50,” says Corcoran. “Before, there weren’t a lot of incentives to offer lower prices, but if companies are vying to be one of three offered in a district, there’s an opportunity to create better plans that will help build better outcomes for participants.”
Many have begun competitive bidding at the state level, including Arizona, which found one vendor for the whole state.
On the local level, the Dougherty County (Ga.) School System adopted a single vendor policy in January. “What we had was a multitude of vendors, maybe 13, and everyone was coming in saying, ‘Mine is the best,’” stated Robert Lloyd, Dougherty’s executive director of finance and operations, to the Wall Street Journal recently. “My concern is to give our staff the best possible tools.”