CapCon schools the education establishment

Bay City protest signs
Legislative efforts to control public education costs generated the usual protests and hyperbole.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposals for public education spending generated a harsh but predictable reaction from the K-12 establishment. In newspaper stories across the state and in rallies at the Capitol, the common refrain has been that districts have already “cut to the bone.” However, important financial details rarely appear in these stories. Public education is the most expensive item paid for by state government with state tax dollars, and the cost of paying employees at public schools accounts for almost 80 percent of this spending. A serious effort to restrain the cost of government must address its most expensive area.

But readers of the Mackinac Center’s online daily news site know these details. Dozens of school officials’ outlandish statements in local newspapers have been debunked this spring because of the work of Michigan Capitol Confidential lead reporter Tom Gantert, using the Mackinac Center’s database of school union contracts and the technical expertise of Education Policy Director Michael Van Beek.

For example, a Michigan Education Association official claimed that some first-year teachers in the Lansing School District were being paid wages that were below the poverty line. CapCon was able to inform its readers that the federal poverty line for a single person was $11,351, while the starting salary of a new teacher in the district last year was $35,712.

In numerous other districts, superintendents or other officials claimed their budgets had been repeatedly cut over the years. The analysis and reporting of Van Beek and Gantert time and again showed that district budgets had actually increased year after year. Some of these articles were picked up by other media outlets.

Health insurance costs are a persistently non-reported story. When school administrators and union officials are quoted about the serious cuts allegedly made by their districts, CapCon points out that virtually all teacher union contracts still don’t require employees to pay more than a few percentage points of their own health insurance premiums, and a majority require no employee contribution at all. In contrast, private-sector workers in Michigan pay an average of 21 percent of their health insurance costs.

More than 346,000 unique visitors have turned to the CapCon news site since January 1. The Facebook page now has more than 11,000 fans — more than the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News. Thanks to the Center’s research and reporting efforts, the days when school officials could expect uncritical coverage of their “underfunded” claims are over.