Last week, Republican leaders in Lansing rammed through legislation that will weaken retirement security for newly hired school employees and increase future costs to taxpayers. These reckless changes come at a time when teachers and education-support professionals are already facing declining salaries and benefits.
For instance, would it shock you to learn that in virtually every school district in the state you can find a teacher who qualifies for a Bridge card, the modern version of the food stamp program?
Or that a teacher in southeast Michigan qualified for a Habitat for Humanity home — the second public school employee in the past three years to be selected for this low-income program?
Those facts reflect recently released data from the Michigan Department of Education showing teacher salaries have declined across the state for the fifth straight year. They fly in the face of claims by Lansing politicians that school employees — specifically teachers — enjoy overly generous salaries and benefits.
The public isn’t buying those obviously false claims from politicians. A recent survey by the Lansing firm EPIC-MRA revealed that a strong majority of Michigan residents believe our teachers and school support staff are actually underpaid. That finding, along with countless other examples, shows the overwhelming public support for educators and public schools.
According to the survey, nearly 60 percent of Michigan voters believe teachers and other school employees are paid too little. In fact, among respondents who thought school employees are paid too little, 35 percent believed they are paid much too little. These findings directly contradict the constant attacks on teachers’ pay and benefits from politicians in Lansing.
The survey also found only 5 percent of Michigan voters believe teachers are paid too much. The boisterous claims from certain politicians in Lansing and Washington that educators are overpaid are completely out of touch with what the general public believes — and what is actually happening.
The notion that voters think school employees receive overly generous benefits is also completely misguided. In fact, just 11 percent of voters believe school employees receive too much in health insurance, retirement and other benefits. Overwhelmingly, voters agree that hard working public school employees deserve a secure retirement and livable benefits for dedicating their lives and careers to educating our children, the future leaders of tomorrow.
This is a concept some politicians just can’t grasp — likely because it doesn’t mesh with the narrative pushed by their corporate and ideological backers, like Betsy DeVos and her billionaire family. DeVos and other right-wing donors like her are devoted to demonizing public school employees in order to advance their agenda of dismantling Michigan’s public education system in favor of a private sector, corporate takeover of our schools.
Thanks to constant prodding by DeVos and others, Republican leaders in the state House and Senate have waged one attack after another on the wages and benefits of public school employees. Those attacks have taken their toll not only on the morale of school employees, but on their ability to support their families. These continued attacks have also made it challenging to recruit and retain the best and brightest in the education profession — with each passing attack like the recent pension vote, our teacher shortage gets worse.
With those facts in hand, it’s easy to understand why teachers and support staff feel devalued, underappreciated and disliked. But school employees have to remember that the public is still with them. It’s high time for Republicans in Lansing to recognize that and stop their relentless, politically motivated attacks on educators and their livelihoods, and begin recognizing the role all school employees play in preparing our children for bright and prosperous futures.
Steven Cook is president of the Michigan Education Association.
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.