Analysis

Getting Harder For Union To Spread Teacher Pay Disinformation

'Taxpayers have a right to know where government funds are going and to whom'

In 2012, officials at Michigan’s largest teachers union used the mainstream media to spread disingenuous claims about teacher pay. Many newspapers uncritically accepted and repeated in news stories union claims of low teacher pay.

An early example was when former Michigan Education Association president Steve Cook published a claim that a teacher with a master’s degree in his second year on the job had a salary of $31,000 from Lenawee County. That claim turned out to be unfounded.

But the MEA persisted. Union spokesman Doug Pratt expanded the claim by portraying $31,000 as the average salary of all second year teachers in the state. This inaccurate claim was printed in a number of Michigan’s daily newspapers as well as far-left blogs, such as Eclectablog.

To uncover the truth then, Michigan Capitol Confidential had to submit multiple Freedom of Information Act requests asking numerous school districts for actual teacher salaries. It could take as many as 15 business days or longer for requests to be processed and answered. This meant that union misinformation could remain in the public domain unchallenged and uncorrected for many weeks.

Teacher pay is a common topic when school funding is discussed by candidates for state offices, including governor. This is understandable given that “instructional expenditures" account for about 60 percent of a typical public school’s operating expenses.

And yet the teacher salary tall-tale above is one of many inaccurate claims repeated by the mainstream media. The claims have mostly gone unchallenged because while actual public school salary data is public information, it has not been readily available on a systematic basis.

For example, in 2013 a full time teacher at the Grand Rapids school district made disingenuous claims that she could make more money as a substitute teacher, and that she qualified for a Bridge Card (food stamps). The news site MLive repeated the claims without challenge under the headline, “Grand Rapids teachers say paycheck cuts qualify them for food stamps.”

Substitute teachers in the Grand Rapids school district were paid $85 a day in 2013. To be eligible for food stamps at that level, this individual would have had to be supporting a household of seven people. However, this claim was uttered by a full time teacher who would have been earning between $216 to $243 per day in 2013 (depending on her academic credentials). But confirming that information could take weeks.

Given that such claims were frequently being made and unchallenged by the media, in 2015 Michigan Capitol Confidential’s parent organization, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, decided to obtain a list of public school teacher salaries for the entire state that is maintained by the Michigan Office of Retirement Services (ORS). A Freedom of Information request was duly submitted and the data was turned over. In 2016 and 2017 updated versions the same information were requested and delivered.

In 2018 the pattern changed. When a request for 2018 salary information was submitted to the Office of Retirement Services, the agency sent notices to public school employees informing them that public records showing their salaries were being released to the Mackinac Center.

The Michigan Education Association also sent a letter to its officers, board members and staff advising them that it had become aware of the Mackinac Center’s open records law request.

“We want you to know that MEA is aware of those FOIA requests and is carefully monitoring the situation, both in terms of proper compliance, and, then, what the Mackinac Center is actually doing with the data," the MEA stated in an email.

Ironically, the data is often used by Michigan Capitol Confidential to correct misinformation put out by the teachers union itself.

For example, in 2016 the MEA wrote in its online magazine, “A teacher who started in the district 10 years ago still makes beginners’ pay of less than $30,000 a year…”

But salary data from the school district refuted this claim. The lowest annual salary of the district’s 106 teachers in 2015-16 was $34,000.

The Mackinac Center and Michigan Capitol Confidential are far from the only organizations tracking public employee salaries.

One of them is OpenTheBooks.com, a nonprofit whose mission is to “to capture and post all disclosed spending at every level of government.” The nonprofit has posted several years’ worth of salary data for nearly every government worker in Michigan and other states.

“Taxpayers have a right to know where government funds are going and to whom. After all, it's our money. At the federal, state, and local level, pension and retirement systems are facing a fiscal crisis,” said Adam Andrzejewski, founder of OpenTheBooks.com, in an email. “The transparency revolution is empowering citizens to hold government accountable like never before. OpenTheBooks is committed to giving the public the information they need to ask the right questions.”

The MEA didn't respond to an email seeking comment.