Michigan's economic decline is starting to affect public school budgets, and over the past few months, education lobbyists, led by the Michigan Education Association, have invested their considerable resources in a public relations barrage calling for tax hikes. But Center Education Policy Director Michael Van Beek has deftly parried every blow, deploying a wide range of Mackinac Center research into an ad campaign full of half-truths and myths.

The MEA purchased significant television and radio airtime around the state for ads making an emotional appeal in the school funding debate. The ads, which exclaimed that "enough is enough" and complained that politicians are "beating up on teachers like punching bags," were full of misleading statements and unverifiable claims. It's likely they were designed as part of the MEA's plan to build support for the creation of a service tax and the institution of a graduated income tax.

Working with Communications Specialist Kathy Hoekstra, Van Beek responded to these misleading ads with a video fact-check. By analyzing each claim in the MEA ads, Van Beek was able to expose the elements that were misleading, partially true or just plain false. (The video can be found on the Center's website.)

Misleading claims, especially when repeated often enough, can evolve into widely accepted myths. To combat this tendency in the education funding debate and to promote better-informed dialogue, Van Beek began authoring an ongoing series of articles that explore issues like how much revenue schools actually receive, the stability and equitability of school funding over time and how much school employees have "sacrificed" on behalf of taxpayers. The School Funding Myths can be found at here.

Van Beek's expertise on funding and other education issues was in demand. Over a four-month period, he was invited to address the State Board of Education, the House Committee on Education (twice) and a group of about 200 administrators and school board members at Saginaw Valley State University. At each event, he presented ideas for ways Michigan schools could trim their budgets and better weather the state's new fiscal condition. Most of the time, Van Beek was alone in calling for more fiscal responsibility as opposed to tax hikes. At the House Committee on Education, MIRS reported that "Van Beek ran into a buzz saw of contentious questions," but "he stuck to his guns."

In an effort to bring the broader discussion of education funding to a local level, Van Beek in March began evaluating specific districts' teacher contracts. The project's aim was to help local districts become more fiscally responsible and make local school spending more transparent.

About 70 percent of local districts' operating budgets are consumed by compensation for teachers, and every detail of this compensation is dictated by collective bargaining agreements. This Teacher Contract Analysis project dissects these contracts on a district-by-district level and reports the results through a multitude of media outlets.

Union contract analyses have appeared in a number of newspapers and were the subject of a story by Lansing's WILX-TV. The analysis of the Utica school district, the second largest district in the state, was published in The Macomb Daily on May 9. Days later, the local teachers union agreed to a new contract that saved the district $6 million in concessions. The local union president wrote a letter to the editor in an attempt to discredit the analysis, but failed to point out any errors.

In addition to running these analyses in local newspapers, the Center is using its own online media outlet, Michigan Capitol Confidential. Each contract analysis is posted at www.michcapcon.com, and these explanations are among the most popular articles on the site.

One reason for their popularity is that they describe in detail all the different ways that teachers are compensated, including the single salary schedule, health insurance benefits, pension program, working hours and additional pay for extracurricular duties. Much of the information is eyebrow-raising, especially the cost of teacher health insurance plans and how little teachers contribute to their own premiums. Both The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press wrote editorials about the need to reform this aspect of school spending based on this information. The Free Press challenged the MEA to accept "more realistic health plans" for teachers, "instead of standing by watching school districts gut critical services to kids."

Another reason for the contract analyses' popularity is that they enable many residents to actually understand school districts' spending. These contracts are laden with legalese, so a plain-English translation allows anyone to understand the contract's provisions. For instance, by just reading through the contract, few people would pick up on the fact that the Warren school district pays the local union president the highest possible contractual salary with full benefits for not teaching a single class — the union president has full release time to conduct union business. But Van Beek's analyses bring such details into the light.

The success of these contract analyses is made possible by the Center's ongoing transparency effort. For the last three years, the Mackinac Center has been hosting the state's only publicly available online database of school employee contracts. New contracts are constantly updated on the Center's site, and contracts from all 551 school districts are available in a searchable database. To date, the web page that provides access to these contracts remains among the most visited pages on the Center's website.

Another myth that lingers in the school funding debate is that teachers are underpaid. Van Beek released a report regarding average teacher salaries that significantly challenges this notion. His findings garnered substantial public attention.

Compiling data from the National Education Association and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Van Beek showed that the average teacher salary in Michigan was the highest in the nation from 2003 to 2009 when taking into account a state's per capita personal income. Essentially, Michigan pays its teachers well considering overall state wealth. The Detroit News, Battle Creek Enquirer, Livingston Daily and Midland Daily News, among others, reported on these findings.

As Michigan continues to drive businesses, residents and, ultimately, tax revenues out of the state with its tax, labor and regulatory environment, arguments will continue over how to deal with rising school costs and shrinking school revenues. A variety of projects driven by the Mackinac Center's Education Policy Initiative are helping shape this debate. Arming voters and policymakers with fact-based, plain-English analyses the Center is aiming to make sensible and responsible school spending reforms a reality.