Michigan Doesn't Fit Profile for Teacher Walkouts

More already spent on teacher salaries, less on nonteaching staff

A glimpse through recent headlines may make you wonder whether a rash of teacher walkouts will reach the Great Lakes State. If the walkouts were driven by poor student achievement, Michigan would have one of the strongest cases to join the fray. But other forces are at work, and for the most part, our state doesn't fit the profile.

Michigan has at least one key thing in common with the states where teachers have walked out. They have all enacted right-to-work laws that give teachers the choice of whether to pay union fees. And in Michigan, like all but one of the five states that have seen mass walkouts, Republicans control the governor's office and both houses of the Legislature. Unions who back the walkouts are typically not fans of right-to-work or the GOP.

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While labor unions may have targeted these states to send a broader political message, the controversial tactics have been fueled by state-level debates over teacher pay. The trend started last month in West Virginia, where a statewide teachers strike resulted in a 5 percent pay raise. Oklahoma lawmakers approved a $6,000 across-the-board salary increase before teachers took their extended walkout.

Arizona and Colorado are the latest sites of massive walkouts and rallies, with educators leaving classrooms to demand more school funding from state lawmakers. Among the walkout states, only Kentucky has an average teacher salary that ranks among the nation’s highest. In that state, a debate over pension reform legislation fueled the demonstrations.

These facts work against any narrative that could fuel public sympathy for teacher unrest in Michigan. The average teacher salary here is substantially higher than that in any of the walkout states. In fact, it’s the most in the nation, when adjusted for the cost of living. But that comparison does not include benefits. In 2016-17, Michigan school districts spent more than $100,000 on total compensation for each full-time teacher, more than they spent five years earlier.

That doesn't mean most teachers will feel like they are earning that much money. The average salary has lost a little ground in recent years, while schools are having to devote an ever-rising portion of their budgets to cover pension obligations for teachers long since retired. But over time, the 2017 MPSERS reform law should enable teachers to see more of those dollars in take-home pay.

Some have argued persuasively that the key to addressing concerns about teacher pay is setting new spending priorities in school budgets, rather than raising taxes. They can point to this fact: Most of the walkout states have spent more on hiring support staff than is justified by increases in the number of students and teachers.

By simply having the same ratio of nonteaching employees to students in 2015 that they had in 1992, states could have raised average teacher salaries significantly — by more than $11,000 in West Virginia and $15,000 in Colorado.

The situation is less dramatic in Michigan. Keeping support staff numbers in check here would have afforded an average pay increase of $4,841 per teacher. Still, while Michigan's student enrollment has continued to decline over the past five years, the number of employees, especially the number of nonteachers, has experienced a significantly smaller drop. A hiring binge among the state's intermediate school districts certainly has contributed to that trend.

While the average public school teacher in Michigan is comparatively well compensated, the situation is complex. Pay varies among districts and within districts based on seniority or advanced degrees – factors that show little to no relationship with improving student achievement.

Local districts, which hire their staff and determine their pay scales, could address shortages in some teaching specialties by dedicating some of their funds to offering higher pay to teachers in those specialties, plus rewarding effective teaching. That approach may not help forestall walkouts, but it would help more Michigan schools propel children to successful learning.

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