We Verify Teachers Union Pay Claims, You Choose Whether to Trust Them

Union president’s compensation storylines often don’t hold water

The Michigan Education Association and American Federation of Teachers released an online member survey Monday, saying that 80 percent of the 10,889 school employees who responded were not paid enough, according to the statewide news site MLive.

The MLive report quoted Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook saying, “In the comments, many participants said they take home several thousand less per year than compared to just five years ago, often due to pay cuts and pay freezes due to our broken school funding system.”

ForTheRecord says: For several years, Michigan Capitol Confidential has documented specific examples of the MEA giving out inaccurate or false information on how much public school teachers are paid in Michigan. Most recently, the union claimed that a 10-year teacher in the Benton Harbor school district made less than $30,000 a year. Benton Harbor records show no teacher made less than $34,000 a year in 2015-16, including teachers just starting out. Ten-year veterans make more.

But changes in teacher compensation are a complicated subject under typical Michigan public school union contracts. It is also easy to mischaracterize them.

Earlier this year, union officials were claiming some teachers were on food stamps. Michigan Capitol Confidential reviewed actual salaries of teachers in several large districts over four years. We found very few examples of even brand-new teachers getting less than $31,000 plus valuable benefits. To be eligible for food stamps at that level, an individual would have to be the sole breadwinner for four dependents.

Michigan Capitol Confidential also found very little evidence to support union claims of widespread teacher pay cuts in Michigan. Actual reductions in salaries have been found only in a handful of school districts that had fallen into extreme financial distress. One of these happened to be a very large district, Detroit Public Schools, which was rescued from insolvency this year by a state bailout. In the midst of a student enrollment implosion, Detroit teacher salaries were reduced 10 percent in 2010-11 and then frozen.

Yet, for the vast majority of school districts, teachers have received pay increases over the four-year period we examined, and many saw generous raises. The only exceptions were those teachers who had reached the top step of the union pay scale, where salaries can reach $80,000 or more.

For example, one Ann Arbor teacher saw her salary increase from $58,594 in 2010-11 to $72,385 in 2014-15. That raise was similar for many other teachers who are covered by the same union contract.

Contrary to union claims, the largest obstacle to higher teacher salaries is not a “broken school funding system,” but the growing costs of maintaining a seriously underfunded school pension system.

For example, the contributions from Ann Arbor Public Schools to the statewide public school retirement system increased from $17.6 million in 2012 to $31.6 million in 2015, an 80 percent increase over just three years.

If teachers are feeling disrespected about compensation, they should look beyond the union rhetoric and understand what chronic underfunding has done to the school pension system, and what can be done to contain the damage.

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