Setting the Record Straight on Teacher Pay Won't 'Destroy Public Education'

Correcting misleading claims holds debate to a higher standard

In a recent story about political polarization, The Washington Post quoted a Michigan teacher who claimed the Mackinac Center for Public Policy is out to destroy public education because it has published the salaries of particular teachers.

Erin Mastin, a teacher with Boyne City Public Schools, was portrayed in the article as someone concerned about divisiveness, and who believes the political system is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.

From the article:

She could feel the influence of money in politics in her classroom, she said. In recent months, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative Michigan-based think tank funded in part by billionaires Charles and David Koch, had begun posting teachers’ salaries online. Their goal was to highlight the need for teacher pay based on performance rather than seniority or degrees.

Mastin saw a darker purpose.

"I believe their agenda is to destroy public education," she said.

Michigan Capitol Confidential has reported teacher pay ranges at various school districts, and in some cases the pay of particular school employees when doing provides some context needed for a story.

Sometimes this has happened when the common practice of media publications to not report the salary of a teacher featured in a story led to an inaccurate narrative.

In one instance last October, the Oakland Press allowed a Rochester Community Schools teacher working at the newspaper as a summer intern to publish an article quoting her school colleagues as saying that teachers need a second job to makes ends meet. The story never mentioned that the teachers quoted in the story were paid between $80,472 and $87,349 annually.

Sometimes teachers take their complaints about compensation public. A publication that picks up these complaints but fails to report how much the individual was paid may be leaving out a critical context, and thus, misinform readers.

In an example from 2011, the Grand Rapids Press quoted a teacher who said she qualified for food stamps and could make more as a substitute teacher. The newspaper did not report the district’s salary range for full-time teachers or how much substitute teachers are paid.

So Michigan Capitol Confidential filled in the blanks by reporting that the teacher who claimed to be eligible for food stamps would have been earning between $41,443 to $46,532, depending on her academic credentials. To be eligible for food stamps at that pay level, she would have to be the sole provider for a household of seven. Also, substitute teachers in the district earned $86 a day with none of the health insurance benefits given to full-time teachers.

In a similar vein, last August, a Plymouth-Canton Public Schools teacher wrote a column titled, "Why I can no longer teach in public education." The teacher explained that while it wasn’t about the money, she didn’t “go into teaching to barely scrape by, either.”

The item was picked up by MLive, The Washington Post and Huffington Post, none of which reported that this individual earned an annual salary of $63,171, plus health insurance and pension benefits. Michigan Capitol Confidential clarified the record by providing her compensation.

News organizations often fail to challenge salary claims made by teachers, even though the information is readily available. Union contracts prescribing teacher pay scales are available online on every school district’s website; the average teacher salary for every school district in the state is available online from the Michigan Department of Education.

Correcting misleading statements on teacher compensation is not destroying public education. It is holding those participating in the debate to a higher standard.