Union goes to lengths to protect its piece of public education pie
For the past several years, the state’s largest teachers union has engaged in an ongoing public relations campaign that has distorted facts and promoted inaccuracies about Michigan’s public school system.
Michigan Capitol Confidential has documented many of the inaccuracies over the past five years. The most dramatic case of the union’s not telling the truth was its claim that Gov. Rick Snyder had cut $1 billion from school budgets. In a 2013 Facebook post, MEA President Steve Cook wrote, “Shortly after taking office, one of Snyder’s bold initiatives to ‘reinvent Michigan’ was to cut over $1 billion from the education budget.”
The claim was picked up by 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer, who made it a central theme of his campaign.
But it was an untrue statement. According to the Senate Fiscal Agency, there was no $1 billion cut to either K-12 school or higher education budgets. Instead, K-12 education spending has increased every year under Snyder. State funding for higher education was, though, cut once — by $421 million in Snyder’s first budget in 2011-12 — but not since.
Michigan Capitol Confidential was the first publication to expose the “$1 billion cut” falsehood, plus many others. It has done so by publishing actual figures from state budget documents. Some media outlets had previously treated debates about school funding as “he said/she said” stories, making little or no attempt to check the state's data.
Eventually, the mainstream media followed Michigan Capitol Confidential's lead and reported that the claim of a $1 billion cut was false and that Snyder had actually increased funding for K-12 schools.
Snyder’s campaign director Kyle Robertson said in a MIRS News interview after the 2014 election that Schauer’s defeat was due in part to the union’s claims being turned back by the media.
“Another high point was the media coming around and correcting the education lies because we not only had the data on our side, but there were those in the public who were persuadable on this issue and they were persuaded,” he said.
The MEA hasn’t responded to repeated emails seeking comment on its inaccurate statements over the years.
Getting to the bottom of some MEA claims has required submitting Freedom of Information Act document requests to school districts and the state. Here’s a list of more recent examples:
In 2016, the MEA claimed this about a teacher in Benton Harbor: “A teacher who started in the district 10 years ago still makes beginners’ pay of less than $30,000 a year.” According to the records from Benton Harbor Area Schools, the lowest annual salary for the district’s 106 teachers in the 2015-16 school year was $34,000.
The MEA has repeatedly claimed that some teachers are on food stamps. Last August, the MEA’s Steve Cook wrote in The Detroit News: “In almost every Michigan school district, you will find employees — especially support staff and newer, younger teachers — who qualify for Bridge Cards (the modern version of food stamps). Without that assistance, they would not be able to feed their families.”
It’s very rare, though, to find a full-time starting teacher in Michigan who is paid less than $31,000 a year (before the value of full benefits is included). At that income level, to be eligible for food stamps under federal rules, an individual would have to be the sole income earner for herself and three dependents — not typical for brand-new teachers in their 20s.
The union’s online magazine The MEA Voice regularly features far-fetched stories and recollections reportedly shared by veteran teachers.
In a 2015 article, retired Traverse City teacher Fran Cullen said that years ago, his aunt had been a teacher whose salary was so low it barely covered a modest two-week vacation. But according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average U.S. public school teacher made $6,485 a year 50 years ago. That translates to a $49,129 salary in 2015 dollars, which would make for an extravagant two-week vacation.
In a 2016 Voice article, retired Harbor Beach teacher Penny Letts said she was paid just $6,000 a year when she began teaching 49 years ago, while her friends who graduated from college with engineering degrees made $22,000 a year. Government data doesn’t support that claim, however. The median income in 1965 for U.S. families was $6,900 and just 7 percent of families made $15,000 or more a year. A starting salary of $22,000 in 1966 translates to $164,000 in 2016, a highly implausible salary for a student right out of college, even for one with an engineering degree.