By Steven Cook
‘Average Michigan teacher salary drops for the 4th consecutive year,” read newspaper headlines across the state earlier this summer. This news comes from a Center for Educational Performance and Information report about non-inflation-adjusted salary data. Actual salaries and take-home pay for many Michigan teachers have dropped every year for the last four years.
Jennifer Young, a teacher from southeast Michigan, wrote her legislators about the problem:
“As a teacher for over two decades, I have learned to make do and to expect change — change in curriculum, change in testing and change in the classroom are all par for the course. The unfortunate change is the one happening in my wallet. As the cost of living increases every year, my take-home pay is less than what it was seven years ago! As my experience and abilities grow, my paycheck shrinks.”
School districts and employees are still feeling the effects of the $1 billion cut in public education Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature handed them in the 2011-12 budget, which helped to fund a $2 billion reduction in corporate taxes. Since then, wage freezes and, in some districts, wage reductions have put increasing financial pressure on educators and their families.
In almost every Michigan school district, you will find employees — especially support staff and newer, younger teachers — who qualify for Bridge Cards (the modern version of food stamps). Without that assistance, they would not be able to feed their families.
In Algonac, 16-year teacher and football coach Jeff Smith recently qualified for a Habitat For Humanity house. Such levels of financial hardship are unthinkable but all too common for the dedicated professionals serving Michigan’s students.
Policymakers compounded the financial stress on employees in 2012 by capping the amount school districts could pay for health care benefits.
As the cost of health care has risen, so too has the amount deducted from paychecks of teachers like Young, who also wrote: “With the stroke of a pen, the Legislature and governor took thousands of dollars from my family’s budget every year. Since the state imposed cap on health care funding, my contribution has increased by $4,000, while my wages have remained stagnant.” Thousands of school employees across the state share Young’s frustration.
Stagnant wages, exorbitant health care premiums and increased contributions by employees to the pension system — combined with high student loan debt — are forcing out many new educators. Teachers with less than five years’ experience are leaving the profession at record levels, and enrollment in college and university teacher preparation programs has declined by nearly 40 percent in the last five years.
The best and brightest who dreamed of inspiring the next generation of leaders in business, government and industry are finding out that if they choose teaching as a profession, they may not be able to support their families and secure a spot in the middle class. When asked by their students if they should consider becoming a teacher, many educators are finding it more and more difficult to encourage such aspirations. The effects of Michigan’s teacher shortage are only beginning to be felt — the worst is yet to come.
Politicians often talk about valuing public education, students, and those who work in public schools, especially in an election year. But actions speak louder than words. Continued attacks on school employees and public education have harmed not only school employees, but schools and students across the state.
It is up to us to demand that those who make the laws treat Michigan schools and school employees fairly. They can start by removing the cap on school district health care premiums and restoring school funding.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.