My letter to Ohio and Michigan legislators. . .
Now that I've changed this website around, this letter may seem out of place.
However, it was the first thing ever posted on this website, so I've decided to leave it online. I am a teacher, and found the rhetoric used earlier this year by many politicians in Ohio and Michigan, especially the governors, to be completely out of touch with reality. You don't have to agree with me, but I hope you can se the logic in many of the things I say below, such as the irony of acting as though all teachers make $100,000 a year while giving someone a $50,000 a year raise and the irony of people who receive $11,800-a-year-expense accounts criticizing those who often spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars per year on their students.
Kudos to Michigan State Senator Bruce Caswell for the most thoughtful response of those I received.
February 18, 2011
An open letter to politicians in Ohio and Michigan, their constituents, and my fellow educators:
As a resident of Michigan who teaches in Ohio, I find myself growing more dismayed and disappointed with the attitudes of both states’ leaders towards teachers. Like any other adult who lives or works in either state and pays attention, I know there are serious financial issues facing each state, and that tough decisions will have to be made. As they work to solve each state’s financial difficulties, it increasingly seems that our legislators and governors are intent on selling the public the idea that the rights and compensation of those who serve their children daily, and the educators themselves, are the main obstacle. From Michigan’s Senate Bill 1227 in 2010 to Ohio’s proposed Senate Bill 5 and House Bill 69, many state leaders seek to present teachers in a negative light and create a divide between educators and those they serve. These leaders continue to use several common myths; some are at the forefront of current discussions, while others are below the surface, serving as the ideological basis for ideas presented by politicians in both states.
Myth #1: All teachers are overcompensated. Let’s start with a tough one. Michigan’s teachers are the 11th-best paid teachers in the country, and Ohio is 13th in average teacher salary. There are some teachers with salaries of $100,000 in larger districts in Michigan, including 300 in the greater Detroit area, as reported by the Detroit News. However, in the district in which my wife is an elementary teacher in Michigan, the top salary for a teacher is $68,300. In my school district in Ohio, the highest teacher’s salary is $59,271, for a teacher with 20 years experience, a master’s degree, and twenty additional credit hours of college coursework; this is hardly a six-figure salary.
If both states’ legislators are concerned with the six-figure salaries for teachers, perhaps they should consider legislation for a maximum salary, rather than cutting teachers’ salaries across the board, which is being discussed in Michigan, where teachers are now also contributing five-percent per paycheck for the health care of retired teachers, and which is one of the purposes of Ohio’s Senate Bill 5.
Further, the legislators should consider similar legislation for administrators. While the average compensation for administrators in Michigan is below the national average, the Kalamazoo Gazette and Grand Rapids Press report that several superintendents in western Michigan make over $200,000 per year, often including bonuses to bring their base pay to over that amount. These superintendents are at larger districts, such as Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Ann Arbor. However, the superintendent of the Coopersville Area Public Schools, a district with 2600 students, made a base salary of $238,702 in 2010-2011, plus a $12,000 longevity bonus and other benefits which brought his total compensation to $327,950, while the assistant superintendent made $110,700. Five other administrators at the district had a base salary of nearly $100,000 each, which, when other benefits were added, expanded to $133,000 to $167,000, as listed on the district’s “Budget Transparency” page. Again, the district has 2,600 students. (The highest paid administrator in Ohio, the CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, which has 49,000 students, makes $263,000.) At my wife’s school, the previous superintendent made a salary of $99,000, plus a longevity bonus of $1,600. The next superintendent is expected to have a higher salary. The district has 1,350 students, with three principals and an assistant high school principal to work with students on a daily basis. Although certainly less than the compensation of many other superintendents, the salary of the new superintendent will probably still be more than my wife and I, with master’s degrees and over a decade of experience each, will make this year combined.
After writing the above and doing a little more research, I discovered via MSU’s Capital News Service that Senate Bill 1148, limiting teacher and administrator pay, was introduced by Senator Bruce Patterson in 2010. The bill would limit a superintendent’s pay to 75 percent of the governor’s salary of $177,000, equal to $132,750. The bill is in committee. Patterson is no longer a Senator due to term limits.
Interestingly enough, Patterson’s bill limits teacher pay to $79,650, the same amount that Michigan State Senators received at the time he proposed it. Michigan’s lawmakers have agreed to a 10 percent cut in pay for 2011; their salary is $71,685, with “additional amounts for leadership positions,” according to a “Basic Information” sheet on the Senate’s webpage. These additional amounts will range from $5,000 for the Senate president pro tempore to $23,400 for the Senate president. To be fair, teachers can also receive extra pay, although generally in smaller amounts than those listed above, for coaching or advising activities.
However, Michigan’s legislators also receive $11,800 each year for expenses, as listed on the same “Basic Information” sheet. As we were gathering our tax materials this year, my wife was sorting receipts for things we had purchased for our classrooms. When she was halfway through the receipts, and had reached $1,000, I told her to stop. We can deduct $400 from our income for tax purposes, and my wife received $100 from her school’s parent organization to buy supplies. In these tough economic times, it is the classroom teacher who is often purchasing the pencils and folders, and even calculators and flash drives, for the students. Many parents donate classroom supplies, from pencils to tissues. Most of us don’t have expense accounts.
It should also be noted that many local school unions have agreed to pay freezes for their members. Ironically, these freezes are not always matched by administrators or politicians. Newly-elected Ohio Governor John Kasich gave raises to “nearly two-thirds of his cabinet” in 2011, including a $47,000 raise to his chief of staff, as reported by The Columbus Dispatch. Meanwhile, newly-elected governor Rick Snyder raised the salary of the CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Michael Finney, by “$50,000, or 25 percent,” to $250,000, reports The Detroit News. That raise is nearly equal to my salary after 13 years of teaching and obtaining a master’s degree. I’m sure his job is more difficult than mine, and I’m sure Michigan’s legislators do incur many expenses. My point is that politicians love to point out the compensation of teachers, while ignoring their own benefits or increased salaries. Both Kasich and Snyder have also cut some other positions’ salaries, but increases such as these are rather glaring to me in a time when my salary for a job requiring a college degree, licensure, and ongoing educational expense is being portayed as excessive.
As I’ve been discussing both Michigan and Ohio, I will note that Ohio State Senators are paid a base of $60,584, and receive no expense account. The House Speaker and Senate President receive $94,437, and, as in Michigan, other legislators receive supplements for serving on committees. As discussed in the Columbus Dispatch, a 2010 bill to cut legislator pay passed in the House, but was not acted upon by the Senate.
Myth #2: Teachers’ retirement funds are destroying the state budgets. In Ohio, House Bill 69 seems built upon the idea that teachers have massive retirement accounts. Left out of the discussion is the fact that three-fourths of the money we receive from our retirement is money which we have paid in, and that we have already agreed to put more in and take less out. Further, Ohio teachers do not pay Social Security. Our STRS money is our “social security.”
Myth #3: Teachers only work 9 months, and get every holiday off (so we should cut their pay and benefits). Politicians have marched this idea out for years, and it is more popular as they seek to cut our benefits. The trouble is, they ignore several facts. Teachers are required to take coursework to renew their licenses. We take these classes in the summer, in the evenings, or on weekends. We aren’t in Hawaii all summer. We are in workshops, learning how to use rapidly changing technology to better instruct our students, how to improve reading and writing skills, or how to deal with the emotional problems our students face. On several of the days students have off, teachers are receiving instruction about new state mandates or filling out paperwork for the state. I teach high school, but am still amazed at the sheer amount of forms my wife must complete to track the progress of each of her second-graders.
Although they get a few days for instruction and paperwork, teachers can’t leave their work at work. Every Sunday afternoon, my wife goes to her classroom to work on preparing materials, updating paperwork, making copies, and any number of other things. Meanwhile, I check lesson plans, make new materials, and grade essays. I arrive at school 30 to 45 minutes early each day--between 7:30 and 7:45 AM--after driving 53 miles to get there. For years, I arrived at 7:15. A teacher down the hall from me arrives at 7:15 every day to tutor students for an hour before school, and often stays until 5 PM to help them with their homework. If you see a teacher leaving at 3:30, he or she is probably carrying a folder of papers, or a box of math notebooks, to be graded. We all have classroom memories of our favorite teachers from our days in school. We don’t have memories of them grading our homework, writing letters of reference, or updating their school webpages until midnight.
Saying that teachers work only nine months of the year is much like saying that a Michigan State Senator only works on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, or that an Ohio State Senator only works on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the days on which each respective Senate is scheduled to be in session in 2011, as listed on schedules from their corresponding websites. Of course, the senators have committee meetings, paperwork, and many other responsibilities on the other days of the week. No one ever says they only work three-fifths or two-fifths of the year.
Myths #4 and #5: There are many incompetent teachers, but no way to get rid of them. Politicians push this idea for several reasons. In an economic climate when many workers have lost their jobs, politicians love to point a finger and say, “You didn’t get protected, and you knew what you were doing! What about this guy?” Again, they simply want to create a divide, and who doesn’t remember that one teacher you had who just didn’t seem to cut it--the English teacher who just said, “Do this worksheet,” the History teacher who said, “The notes are on the board. Write them down”? Everyone had one of these teachers; it’s in our collective consciousness, and such people are parodied regularly in TV and the movies.
Here’s the trouble: Most of these people in our memories are from the 1970s and 1980s. During the last 15 years, teaching programs have added extra requirements, and evaluations have become more standardized through programs such as Pathwise and Praxis. New teachers are also required to observe other teachers during their first year of teaching. Most teachers want to know new ideas and new approaches to use in their classrooms.
But, yes, there are still some bad teachers. Contrary to what some politicians trumpet, bad teachers can be fired. Contracts describe the process, and more standardized evaluations provide feedback for specific areas a teacher should be working to improve to maintain employment. If the process is not followed, it is not the fault of other teachers.
On the other hand, politicians leave out the benefits of collective bargaining and the due process of contracts. In short, Ohio Senate Bill 5 goes too far. I am not the strongest union member in the world; there have been years when I have not joined my local union. However, even I realize that teachers need some protection. We deal with a multitude of personalities, from students and parents to administrators and school board members. Nearly everyone that we deal with has power over us. I have been lucky as a teacher; I have had one principal for the majority of my career, one who lets me teach and supports my decisions, trusting what she has heard from parents and students as well as what she has observed. However, many administrators do not stay long. What happens when a teacher has three principals in five years, each with a completely different view of education? What happens when one person takes offense to an idea that is discussed in class? What happens when the child of another teacher or school board member fails a class? What happens if a school board decides a teacher is simply too expensive and wants to replace him or her? The teacher I mentioned above who tutors each morning costs the district more than a new teacher, but I dread the day she retires. The district will save money on a new teacher, but the students will lose her energy, thirty years of knowledge of instructional skills, and much more. With the elimination of future continuing contracts proposed by Ohio Senate Bill 5, what protection would there be for the person who replaces her?
Also lost in the rhetoric is the fact that districts can lay off teachers when faced with economic difficulty. It has probably happened in your school district. Schools have had to cut back in both states. No teacher is “guaranteed a job,” as the popular political cliché asserts.
Myth #6: Teachers have the world’s best healthcare coverage. I have saved this one for last, because it is the most difficult. The truth is, we have pretty good healthcare coverage, coverage many people, and certainly an unemployed person facing losing all such coverage, would envy. Perhaps this envy is what the politicians are counting on as they continually present us as the reason for our states’ financial difficulties. However, even before the recession, many districts were cutting back on health care, and the trend will definitely continue. Both states will need to address the costs of health insurance for current and retired teachers without burdening taxpayers--which will surely not be an easy task.
It should also be noted that politicians in both states have health insurance plans similar to those available for teachers. In Michigan, health care benefits for teachers were cut in 2007, and then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop’s office pledged to do so for legislators as well, according to the Lansing State Journal. Cuts to legislator’s benefits were much discussed in January 2010, shortly after I moved to Michigan. As listed on the legislature’s webpage, the most recent bill dealing with the topic, House Bill 6207 of 2010, was introduced on May 21, 2010, the same day it was sent to the House Government Operations Committee. It has not yet been passed. The website lists the “Last Action” for the bill as May 26, 2010.
I would also like to point out a fact that politicians in both states ignore, or discount as a cliché: Between the facilities many of us teach in and the exposure to sickness from our students, teachers NEED good health care. In 2008, my district built a new high school, but for years, I taught in a building that had flooded many times, leading to mold, and had ceilings and walls full of asbestos. My wife can no longer wear contacts to her school. Something there irritates her eyes. We bought a full-room air filter for her classroom, but it hasn’t helped. Also, many students come to school sick. Take a handful of papers from a student who has been sent to school with pinkeye, have an eight-year-old sneeze in your face, or catch a mold-tinged whiff of air as you enter your classroom to work on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll want good health insurance.
In conclusion, teachers are not the enemies of public education, the reason for the economic woes of our states, or the lackeys of the unions, constantly asking for more. We understand that, like everyone else, we face economic realities, and we have been and are open to discussing changes in our compensation and benefits. On January 26, 2011, the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio presented a plan to the House of Representatives that included raising teachers’ contributions to the plan, reducing their cost of living increases, raising the minimum age to receive benefits, and other cost-saving measures. In Michigan, teachers have met with Governor Snyder to discuss how to address the problems Michigan faces. We, too, are looking for solutions.
Whatever happens, everyone in both states, from teachers to the governor, should know to expect to do more with less. I do not claim to know exactly what future changes are needed. However, as someone who is in Ohio and Michigan daily throughout the school year, I do see the view of teachers presented by many politicians in Columbus and Lansing, and it is consistently and overwhelmingly negative. As these plans and options are weighed, I ask that all involved deal not only with economic realities, but with the realities of the teaching profession, rather than the myths so often put forth.