A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

New school fiscal data from 2008-2009 are available from the Michigan Department of Education, including average teacher salaries. The Michigan Education Association is claiming that school employees have made $1 billion worth of concessions over the last three years, but this latest report shows average teacher salaries continuing to grow.

The average teacher salary in 2008-2009 according to the MDE was $58,721, up 3 percent from the previous year. This figure is computed by dividing the total expenditures on basic instruction by the total full-time certified teachers. However, it also includes teachers in public charter schools, which has the effect of reducing the figure significantly. Only counting salaries of teachers in conventional schools (93 percent of all teachers) produces an average salary of $62,556.

Making this same adjustment for prior years creates a very different picture of what is happening to average teacher salaries in Michigan. The MDE’s reported average teacher salaries from 2000 to 2008 (including charter teachers) declines by 3.9 percent after adjusting for inflation. But charter school enrollment increased by 125 percent over that period, and teachers in these schools impacted the average salary at an increasing rate. Counting only unionized teachers in conventional districts finds that over this same period, average salaries increased by 1.9 percent after adjusting for inflation.

In one sense, it's quite remarkable that average teacher salaries have increased. Since union contracts dictate that pay be based on longevity, replacing retired teachers at the top of the salary schedule with new ones who make the minimum base salary puts downward pressure on the overall average salary. As demonstrated, increasing enrollments in public charter schools also limits the growth of the average teacher salary because those teachers earn less.

On the other hand, it's not surprising to see rising average salaries. Teacher pay is determined by a single salary schedule that has built-in automatic pay raises, based solely on longevity and the types of college degrees obtained. On top of this, districts make all their staffing decisions based on seniority, meaning that the highest paid teachers will always be the last ones let go if districts must downsize their staff due to declining enrollments or rising labor costs.

Since these factors contributing to a rising average salary do not have any significant impact on improving teacher effectiveness, we shouldn't expect student achievement to rise alongside the average teacher salary. A growing average salary is merely evidence that the automatic pay raises teachers receive are outpacing the downward pressure from hiring new teachers to replace retirees and using more charter school teachers.

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