The Myth of Teacher Poverty

Average Michigan educator earns more than $62,000

The average public school teacher’s salary in Michigan in 2014 was $62,169, according to the state Department of Education.

The average salary in Michigan's private sector was $48,043 in 2014, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet, a small but very vocal minority of teachers across the state have participated in a campaign to paint their profession as low-paid, and their compensation complaints have frequently been picked up by numerous media outlets.

The stories have often uncritically repeated allegations that teachers are living on food stamps, make less than substitute teachers or need second jobs to pay their bills. They have done so even though the actual compensation levels in the form of union pay scales are available online.

Consider just some of the numerous examples.

In 2012, the Center for Michigan’s Bridge magazine published a story about retired Royal Oak teacher Kathy Kapera, who said the lucrative retirement benefits teachers receive “would make up for the relative lack of financial compensation she would earn as a teacher.” But the story never reported how much Kapera was actually paid. According to the district's union contract, a teacher with Kapera’s 32 years of seniority would have been collecting an $81,000 annual salary at the time of her retirement in 2010, plus benefits.

In 2012, Rockford Public Schools teacher Craig Beach wrote an op-ed in MLive in which he described the complaint of a colleague's daughter: “Mom, I know what goes into the profession. You demonstrate the many hours put in after leaving school, the stress, the lack of respect and now extremely low pay. I want to eat and have a life.”

In 2015, Beach and his wife, also a teacher at Rockford Public Schools, were each paid $72,349 plus benefits. Their salaries were not reported in the article.

In 2013, Grand Rapids Public Schools teacher Tina Ratliff told school board members, “I could make more money as a substitute.”

The MLive article containing the quote never questioned Ratliff’s claim. But the Education Action Group filed a Freedom of Information request and found Ratliff was paid $40,830 in 2012. That year, the district paid substitute teachers $85 per day, so a substitute teacher working the same 191-day schedule as Ratliff would have earned $16,235. Plus, substitutes don't get health insurance or retirement benefits, which can add an estimated $26,000 in value to a regular teacher's salary. This information was available online.

In November 2014, Romulus Community Schools teacher Serena Kessler posted on her personal blog her views of teacher compensation. Kessler said the brightest and most talented teachers would stay away from education as a career “since they don’t see how they will ever earn enough money to pay off their student loans, buy homes, and support families.”

Kessler's salary was $77,390 in 2015, not counting benefits.

And most recently, the Oakland Press reported that Rochester Public Schools teacher Karen Malsbury “needed” to get a second job to provide an additional source of income for her family. Malsbury, 37, was paid $87,349 this past year, plus benefits. The Oakland Press did not report Malsbury’s salary or list how much a teacher with her seniority earns, a figure that can be looked up in the union contract posted on the district’s website.

"Teachers are professionals and deserve fair compensation," said James Hohman, the assistant director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. "But they are often spoken of as victims of low pay, when in most cases the data shows otherwise."

Teacher pay varies across the state, although the compensation formula is virtually the same in almost every district: salary is based on seniority and number of academic credentials. This "single salary schedule" ("single" for each individual district) limits how much teachers can be paid, and guarantees that no matter how well any individual performs in the classroom, each will always receive exactly the same as colleagues with equal seniority and credentials.

For example, at the Stephenson school district in the Upper Peninsula's Menominee County, a starting teacher with a bachelor’s degree gets $31,167. After 10 years, this teacher would earn $44,952 with a bachelor’s or $48,848 if she had attained a master’s degree. The same starting teacher at the Ann Arbor school district would get $39,540 the first year, and make $65,662 after 10 years with a bachelor’s degree, or $78,333 with a master’s.

Starting teacher pay is one of the themes often sounded in the discussions of compensation levels. Although he has not participated in the low-pay characterizations described here, Michigan’s new state superintendent of education, Brian Whiston, echoed this theme in a recent public TV broadcast. Whiston referred to people who had been “kind of been turned off by going into education” because of “lower starting wages,” among other things.

But while starting educator salaries are not high, they rise steadily. In addition to the examples above, a first year teacher with a bachelor’s degree hired by the Walled Lake school district in 2006 would have made $37,724 that year. That teacher would have been in his ninth year in 2014 and been earning $62,312 with a bachelor’s degree, or $70,070 with a master’s degree. These figures were obtained from the salaries posted in the union contracts.

Generally, a teacher reaches the top of the union pay scale after 15 years. At that point, some teachers can earn $100,000 or more with perks, especially if they take on additional duties. These amounts do not include retirement and health benefits.

At the Troy school district in Oakland County, there were 96 teachers whose annual salary topped $100,000 in 2014. The highest-paid teacher made $133,647. Those amounts include payments for taking on additional duties at rates specified in the contract, such as coaching sports, filling in to replace an absent teacher or working at an after-school athletic event.

Most district pay scales do not run as high as Troy, where housing costs are higher than in many other parts of the state. At the Eau Claire school district near the Indiana border, the superintendent earned $93,339 in 2014 and the maximum teacher salary on the union pay scale was $61,086. This past year, the starting salary at Eau Claire was $32,528.

The individual teacher salaries reported in this story came from the state of Michigan in a Freedom of Information Act request.


See also:

How Unions, Districts Hold Back Michigan's Best Teachers

A Closer Look At Teacher Salaries In Michigan

Michigan Teachers Rank No. 2 For Salary

Union President Claims Some Teachers May Have To Sell Homes