School Officials, Teachers Unions, Media All Complicit In Edu-Disinformation

The effect is to undermine recent reforms opposed by unions

Teachers unions, public school administrators and the Michigan Department of Education have falsely portrayed the financial condition of public school teachers in an apparent effort to undermine reforms enacted by a Republican-controlled state legislature. And a complicit media has helped their project.

For the past year, union officials and some politically active school administrators have advanced two related narratives. The first is that teachers have stagnant salaries. The second is that there is a teacher shortage aggravated by attacks on the profession, which drive away potential candidates.

The facts do not support the narrative, however, including the actual number of applicants for open teaching positions. A statewide teacher salary database, meanwhile, shows the vast majority of teachers steadily advancing in pay.

The state’s largest teachers union has led the attack on education reforms.

And it has been helped by school administrators who appear unconcerned that some of the reforms they are undercutting directly address the source of what in other forums they characterize as their districts’ ongoing budget crisis.

For example, the Michigan Education Association ran a story on its website titled, “Pension Threats a ‘Deal Breaker.’" This referred to a new law that will make it much harder for state officials to continue the massive underfunding that has put the school pension system $29.1 billion in debt to its members.

In the story, Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Michael Shibler argued that partial pension reforms adopted in 2010 and 2012 were working and no more were needed.

“Those changes appear to be working, so why change that?” Shibler told the MEA.

But in 2010, before the first round of partial reform, Shibler’s district made a contribution of $6.96 million into the pension system, one in an ongoing series of annual payments. In 2016, after two rounds of reform, its annual pension contribution had jumped to $12.49 million.

To put this in context, if Rockford’s pension expense had remained at its 2010 level, every one of the district’s 463 teachers could have a $12,000 bonus this year.

Shibler also said that earlier reforms – including modest limits on school employees’ health insurance benefits – were driving people out of the teaching profession.

“If the Legislature makes retirement less secure, or offers a plan that’s less attractive, people are quite simply not going to select teaching as a career,” he said.

Rockford Public Schools’ own experience filling open teaching positions does not support this claim, however.

Rockford had 598 applicants for 21 teaching positions posted in 2016-17, according to records received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. That’s an average of 28.5 per opening. The school district said it has access to a pool of nearly 11,000 eligible applicants.

Teacher compensation levels are another area where education officials - this time in state government - appear to have promoted a disingenuous narrative.

For example, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston has made claims about how little new public school teachers are paid when first hired.

“But the problem is,” he said in a Feb. 10 article from MIRS News, “why would our ‘best and brightest’ go into teaching making $28,000 a year, while other students are getting jobs and making $50,000 or more right out the college? We’ve got to do something about starting pay for teachers,” he continued.

Michigan Capitol Confidential challenged the Education Department to back up its leader's claim of teachers starting at that low of a salary.

The department responded by pointing to three school districts with union contracts that prescribed starting salaries that low. The three have a combined 25 teachers. (They are Nottawa Community School, Alba Public School and Wells Township School District.)

There are around 95,000 active full-time teachers in more than 500 Michigan school districts. Yet state officials pointed to those three districts with a couple dozen teachers as examples.

Michigan Capitol Confidential tracked the three-year salary trek of 160 teachers who started in 2013-14 at five different Michigan school districts. Their average starting salary was $31,847, skewed lower because many taught for less than a full year. But the average pay had risen to $45,783 in 2015-16.

This contradicts the narrative of stagnant teacher pay. There is the occasional fiscally challenged school district that is forced into a salary freeze, but they are the exceptions. Which means the vast majority of public school teachers get regular pay increases of some type.

The one consistent exception: Teachers at the top of the union pay scale, with base pay levels ranging from $74,000 to $95,000 depending on the district. But even they benefit from occasional across-the-board increases.

The media has played a role by uncritically publishing and repeating inaccurate statements that unfairly portray teaching in a bad light.

For example, a June 15 story in The Detroit News reported that teachers were upset over the since-enacted pension reform then moving through the Legislature. One cited the measure as a reason that younger adults don’t want to be teachers. John Anderson, a teacher in the Western School District in Jackson County, said the lack of applicants for open teacher position in his district is evidence. He said his school district was lucky if it got three or four applicants for a teaching position.

Michigan Capitol Confidential asked Anderson’s district for records on the number of job applications its gets. The district received on average 29.7 applicants for each teaching position posted in 2016-17.

In another example, a series of stories by Michigan Radio reporter Jennifer Guerra portrayed teachers as underpaid and coping with stagnant salaries. Guerra said, “You could be teaching seven years in a district, and be frozen on step one.” Step one refers to the lowest salary on the union pay scale.

When challenged to list a school district where this has happened, she said: “I was speaking hypothetically in that quote, thus the use of the word ‘could’ -- the goal was to illustrate to listeners what a freeze is. As you know, teacher pay is laden with jargon, so rather than say a teacher ‘could have been working in a district for four years but only increased half a step,’ I went with a bigger jump to illustrate the point. That said, many districts have experienced freezes, keeping teachers at the same step years in a row.”

The MEA made a claim in its February newsletter about a teacher at the East China district in St. Clair County who spent seven years stuck at the second step of the union pay scale before leaving the profession this year. But according to a public data base, this teacher saw a salary increase of 3.2 percent in 2014-15 and 3.9 percent in 2015-16.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.