Robert Costrell

Institution: University of Arkansas

Robert M. Costrell is Professor of Education Reform and Economics and holds the Endowed Chair in Education Accountability at the University of Arkansas.  His recent research topics include teacher pension policy, fiscal impact of school choice, and methodologies for school funding estimation. He is also an expert in standards-based reform. Professor Costrell leads the Department of Education Reform’s Study Abroad Program in Israel.

Dr. Costrell is the 2020 recipient of the Steven D. Gold Award for contributions to public financial management in the field of intergovernmental relations and state and local finance. The award is given annually by the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the National Tax Association.
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Professor Costrell has both an academic and policy-making background. His academic career has featured seminal publications on teacher pensions, the economic theory of educational standards, income distribution and testing, and school finance litigation. These have appeared in the American Economic Review, the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Public Economics, the Journal of Pension Economics and Finance, and Education Finance and Policy, as well as general interest publications, such as Brookings Papers on Education Policy and Education Next.  He has also written commentaries for the Wall Street Journal and Education Week.

From 1999 to 2006, Dr. Costrell served in major policy roles for three governors of Massachusetts, including policy research director and chief economist, with a particular focus on education policy as that state’s landmark reforms were implemented.  As education advisor to Governor Mitt Romney, he helped develop the governor’s comprehensive proposal for a second round of education reform in 2005, and also led the reforms of the state’s district and charter funding formulas. In 2003, Dr. Costrell’s extensive expert testimony in Massachusetts’ school finance case (Hancock v. Driscoll) proved critical to the successful defense of that state’s education reform program. He represented the administration on the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission (2001-03) and the Massachusetts School Building Authority (2005-06).

Dr. Costrell has served on the U.S. Department of Education’s Advisory Council on Education Statistics, appointed by Secretary Paige (2001-02) and the National Technical Advisory Council for NCLB (2008-09), appointed by Secretary Spellings.  He was Fellow in Education Reform of the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas (2011-13).  He has provided expert witness testimony in school finance cases in Missouri and Washington, and also aided the New York Attorney General’s Office.

Dr. Costrell is the 2020 recipient of the Steven D. Gold Award of the Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management for his contributions to public financial management in the field of intergovernmental relations and state and local finance.

Professor Costrell joined the faculty at the University of Arkansas in August 2006, and was the founding graduate director of the Ph.D. program in Education Policy. Professor Costrell was a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, from 1978 to 2000. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of Michigan in 1972 and his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University in 1978


Robert M. Costrell, Josh B. McGee.
We propose an economic reformulation of contribution policy integrating:  (1) formalization of sustainability as the steady-state contribution rate, incorporating both the expected return on risky assets and a low-risk discount rate for liabilities; (2) derivation of contribution adjustment policies required for convergence toward the target funded ratio and contribution rate; and (3) a stylized optimization framework for simultaneous determination of the target portfolio return and funded ratio.  This analysis provides new theoretical insights into the basis for pre-funding vs. pay-as-you-go, resting on the convexity of the long-run risk-return relationship, and also potentially practical guidelines for contribution policy.

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Robert M. Costrell.

The ongoing crisis in teacher pension funding has led states to consider various reforms in plan design, to replace the traditional benefit formulas, based on years of service and final average salary (FAS).  One such design is a cash balance (CB) plan, long deployed in the private sector, and increasingly considered, but rarely yet adopted for teachers.  Such plans are structured with individual 401(k)-type retirement accounts, but with guaranteed returns.  In this paper I examine how the nation’s first CB plan for teachers, in Kansas, has played out for system costs, and the level and distribution of individual benefits, compared to the FAS plan it replaced.  My key findings are:  (1) employer-funded benefits were modestly reduced, despite the surface appearance of more generous employer contribution matches; (2) more importantly, the cost of the pension guarantee, which is off-the-books under standard actuarial accounting, was reduced quite substantially.  In addition, benefits are more equitably distributed between short termers and career teachers than under the back-loaded structure of benefits characteristic of FAS plans.   The key to the plan’s cost reduction is that the guaranteed return approximates a low-risk market return, considerably lower than the assumed return on risky assets.   

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Robert M. Costrell.

How are teacher pension benefits funded?   Under traditional plans, the full cost of a career teacher’s benefits far exceeds the contributions designated for them.  The gap between the two has three pieces, which may (with some license) be mnemonically tagged the three R’s of pension funding:  Redistribution, Return, and Risk.  First, some contributions made for the benefits of short-term teachers are Redistributed to fund the benefits of career teachers.  Second, pension plans assume rosy Returns on their investments, which push costs onto future teachers and taxpayers.  Finally, the Risk inherent in providing guaranteed pensions carries other costs, tangible and intangible, notably including the non-trivial risk of insolvency, which would dramatically raise mandated contributions and endanger future teacher benefits.   I quantify these three components of the gap between benefits and contributions using the same metric as annual contributions.  Illustrating with the California plan, I find the full cost of a career teacher’s annual accumulation of benefits can be as high as 46.6 percent of earnings, nearly triple the corresponding contributions of 17.5 percent.  To understand this gap, which fiscally impacts all areas of education policy, researchers and practitioners may find it helpful to think of the three R’s of pension funding:  Redistribution, Return, and Risk. 

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