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Michigan Truth Squad: Gretchen Whitmer depicts Michigan teachers in poverty

Jun 26, 2018

In her bid to become Democratic nominee for Michigan governor, former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer has made improving education and better supporting classroom teachers a campaign centerpiece. Whitmer, for instance, released a plan that would make the first two years of college debt-free, and she would spend more state money to phase in universal preschool.

She also recently called for K-12 teacher pay increases. Higher pay, she told reporters, “helps districts lure great talent into our schools.” At a candidate forum on May 31, Whitmer portrayed current teacher pay in Michigan as dire, claiming: “We have teachers in Michigan who are on food stamps.”

We rate her claim half accurate.

The claim:

“The pillars of a great education require a great teacher in the classroom,” Whitmer said at the debate. “We have teachers in Michigan who are on food stamps. I want you to think about that for a minute.” Whitmer also linked to a clip of this debate line in a tweet.

The facts:

Whitmer’s assertion about teachers on food stamps has been a frequent talking point of the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which has endorsed Whitmer. Her claim also comes as teachers in other states are becoming more aggressive on funding issues, including teachers who walked out in West Virginia over pay and health insurance and in Oklahoma over pay and state funding for education. Her remarks on food stamps suggest that at least a segment of the Michigan teaching profession is not paid a living wage.

But what are the facts?

Compared with the rest of the nation, Michigan teachers fare relatively well. Public school teacher salaries averaged $62,200 in 2016-17 in Michigan, 11th highest in the nation and more than $3,000 above the U.S. average teacher salary of $58,950, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

And Michigan far outpaces the bottom wage states, which had pay averages in the mid-$40,000s. The Mackinac Center, a Midland-based free-market think tank, argues that Michigan teacher salaries are actually tops in the nation when the state’s cost of living is factored in.

Michigan’s standing, though, obscures years of cuts and wage freezes as the state has struggled through financial hardship. In 1999-2000, teacher pay in the state was the nation’s fourth highest, averaging $70,298, adjusted for inflation – making today’s wages a decline of 11.5 percent. In 2011, Detroit teachers were forced to accept a 10-percent cut and pay more for healthcare as the city limped toward bankruptcy. More recently, the state Legislature cut retirement benefits for new teachers.

Macomb County teacher salaries averaged $71,936 in 2016-17, the highest countywide average. Schools in Montmorency County, in the northeast Lower Peninsula, had the lowest average salary at $41,967.

Walled Lake Consolidated Schools in Oakland County topped individual districts with an average salary of $81,592, with three teachers making more than $100,000 a year.

For new Michigan teachers, pay is far lower.

According to the National Educational Association, the average salary for first-year teachers in Michigan in 2016-17 was $36,234. At the low end of the teacher salary scale, first-year teachers typically make over $33,000. Starting salaries in the financially troubled Benton Harbor Area Schools fell to less than $29,000 in 2015-16 when teachers took a 10 percent pay cut. But they were restored to $34,000 for 2016-17 for teachers with a BA degree.

Whitmer said last year that as she was campaigning in Alpena, “I was told that a first-year teacher who had one child qualified for food stamps.”

The MEA has made broader claims. Last year, MEA President Steven Cook wrote in a Detroit News column: “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?”

Truth Squad reached out to the Whitmer campaign and the MEA to locate a teacher on food stamps.

Despite Whitmer’s debate line about teachers on food stamps, campaign spokesman Zack Pohl was unable to immediately put Truth Squad in touch with such a teacher. Pohl did point Truth Squad to a teacher in Grand Rapids, but she turned out to have been a part-time charter school teacher four years ago when her family needed public assistance.

After several days, the MEA connected Truth Squad with a teacher outside Kalamazoo who said her family – a husband and five children – has been on food stamps for three years. As sole provider, the woman had gross earnings of about $33,000 in 2017-18 as a first-year teacher. She asked not to be identified because she has children in the district. She shared a photo of her Bridge Card – used to redeem food stamp credits – and her employment letter with Truth Squad.

An MEA spokesman said there are other teachers who qualify for food stamps but decline to apply for public assistance.

Federal standards for food stamps dictate that to receive help you can earn no more than 130 percent of the poverty level in gross income. In addition, recipients can have no more than $2,250 in the bank. For a household of seven, the income limit is $48,288 a year. The Kalamazoo-area teacher’s household easily qualifies.

“We pretty much live paycheck to paycheck,” the teacher said, adding they have very little savings.

“We basically have enough money to pay the bills, just to get by. We have a system for what bills get paid when. We have to watch how much air conditioning we use and limit our heat in the winter.”

Federal guidelines dictate a teacher in a household of five could earn up to $37,416 to qualify for food stamps. That’s above starting salary in many districts. It’s unknown how many such households there are among teachers in Michigan school districts.

There are plenty of worthy arguments for paying school teachers higher salaries, particularly in schools with high poverty and students who have greater obstacles to learning. Teachers in Michigan, and around the country, also increasingly have to do more with less, spending hundreds of dollars of their own money each year on classroom supplies, often as other job benefits are trimmed back. Teaching is hard and important work, and certainly worthy of adequate pay and benefits.

It’s also true that starting teacher salaries in Michigan are modest compared with many college-educated professionals, such as marketing or computer information managers, and some skilled-trades. A starting teacher who is sole provider for a household with several children could indeed struggle to make ends meet.

But Whitmer’s rhetoric about teachers on food stamps, while apparently true, misleadingly suggests a profession in which poverty-level pay is common.

At the debate and in social media posts, Whitmer declares that Michigan has teachers (plural) on food stamps. Her campaign did not identify such a teacher. The MEA helped Truth Squad locate the teacher near Kalamazoo. There are likely others. Nonetheless, Whitmer’s rhetoric is misleading in that it leaves out significant facts about the state’s overall level of teacher pay, relative to other states.

We rate her statement half accurate.

Correction: The original version of this Truth Squad criticized Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign for not producing proof of her claim that there are Michigan teachers (plural) on food stamps. In fact, Truth Squad’s inquiry only asked the campaign to identify “a teacher” on food stamps. Truth Squad separately reached out to the MEA, which identified the teacher in this article. The MEA contends others also likely qualify but did not apply for assistance. This clarification does not change our rating of Whitmer’s campaign claim as Half Accurate.