News Story

New ‘Labor Voices’ Column, Same Old Teachers Union Disinformation

The new MEA president spreads the same inaccuracies as the old MEA president

The Detroit News regularly grants the president of the state’s largest teachers union space on its editorial page to write about labor issues. The union regularly uses the privilege to spread distortions and inaccuracies about public school employment.

And Michigan Capitol Confidential regularly points out the inaccuracies and missing context in the union narratives. Here are the latest corrections, based on a column written by the Michigan Education Association’s new president, Paula Herbart:

The MEA wrote: “In Utica, where teachers are working without a contract, many felt that education funding is a priority that politicians in Lansing have ignored. A 2016 study by the National Education Policy Center found that Michigan’s per-pupil spending, compared with neighboring Midwestern states has fallen 'from the middle of the pack to near the bottom.' If we can’t compete in education, we can’t compete for jobs.”

The complete story: Utica Community Schools is getting $24.1 million more in state school aid in 2017-18 than it did in 2010-11, the last budget enacted before Republicans gained a “trifecta,” or control of the state House, Senate and governorship. This happened even though Utica, which now enrolls 27,997 students, has lost 1,240 students since 2011. All figures are based on Michigan Department of Education reports.

Utica is getting over $1,000 more per pupil this year than it did in 2011. The actual figures are $7,845 per pupil in total state funding in the current school year versus $6,687 in 2010-11. Even after adjusting for inflation, that’s a 9.4 percent increase. If the 2010-11 funding level had increased at just the rate of inflation, the district would be getting $7,214 per student this year, not $7,845.

The MEA wrote: “Grand Rapids school employees questioned the exponential growth of for-profit charter schools, which continue to be a huge drain on the public education budget — to the tune of $1 billion each year.

The complete story: The Grand Rapids school employees’ complaints are based on inaccurate union claims. There were 302 charter schools in Michigan in 2014-15. This year, there are 294. That’s not “exponential growth.”

The MEA wrote: “It [charter schools] also leads to stagnant — or falling — compensation for educators. Earlier this year, the Michigan Department of Education released data showing average teacher salaries have declined for the fifth straight year. Many districts around the state are reporting difficulties filling vacancies.”

The complete story: The claim suggests that most teachers are earning less now than they used to. But the change in the average salary reflects a changing workforce, not widespread pay cuts. Large numbers of older teachers at the top of the union pay scale retired in recent years and have been replaced by younger teachers just beginning their rise through the salary “steps.”

For example, at Utica Community Schools, a teacher with a doctorate and 28 years on the job would make $101,956 before retirement. That person might then be replaced by a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree and a starting salary of $39,310.

This is one way in which conflating statewide averages with individual teacher salaries can paint a false picture. Another is to ignore the limits that union-negotiated teacher pay scales generally place on experienced teachers who run out of salary steps. The result is stagnant salaries for the longest-serving teachers. At Utica Community Schools, a teacher at the top of the pay scale earns between $75,791 to $101,956, depending the number of education credits accumulated.

With the exception of the Detroit school district, Michigan Capitol Confidential has found no example of a school district having problems getting qualified candidates to apply for teacher openings. This conclusion is based on dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests to school districts, seeking the number of applicants for teaching positions. The responses consistently show that regular teaching positions often receive dozens of applicants. In some large districts, job postings can even result in hundreds of applicants for a single teaching position. The only other exceptions occur in some districts that report difficulties filling some specialized positions like special education or foreign language.