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Reporter Jennifer Guerra takes a deep dive look at how we go about paying teachers in Michigan and what it means for teacher retention and teacher performance in the state.Scroll below to see all four reports.

These 6 themes emerged when we asked Michigan teachers about their pay

Results of our teacher survey.
Kaye LaFond
Michigan Radio

We put out a non-scientific survey earlier this summer asking teachers in the state how they've seen their pay change over the past several years. (You can check out the survey questions here.)


We heard from 390 teachers across more than 115 districts, which is awesome. (Thanks, teachers!)


We'll go through the six main themes that emerged, but first let's get up to speed on the basics.


A primer on teacher pay


Public school teachers in Michigan and most of the country follow a salary schedule that doles out automatic and relatively small incremental raises for each year of service (these are called "steps") and gives a bigger pay bump for additional educational attainment, like a master's degree or PhD (these are called "lanes").  


The number of "steps" and "lanes" varies from district to district. It can take seven steps to reach the top of the teacher pay ladder in one district and 30 steps in another district.  There are no more yearly step increases after a teacher reaches the top step, but some districts offer "longevity" bonuses for veteran teachers.


Theme 1 - "My pay has been frozen for six years"


There's very little guess work if you're a teacher around how much you'll make in five or 10 years because it's all laid out in the salary schedule. Take the most recent Detroit Public Schools Community District's contract (it expired June 30; new contract talks are underway) for a teacher with a bachelor's degree: 

  • Step 1: $35,683
  • Step 5: $42,219
  • Step 10:$56,099 

There it is in black and white. Your salary schedule for the next 10 years -- assuming there are no pay cuts or step freezes which keep teachers at their current step for an extended period of time. But as we discovered in our teacher salary survey, pay cuts and freezes are not unusual.

We reached out to the state, educational non-profits, and teacher unions. It appears nobody tracks contract negotiations and pay freezes or cuts in the 500+ districts across the state. So let's use our non-scientific survey as a proxy:

Of the 118 districts represented in the survey, 84 districts experienced a pay freeze in the past five years, 34 districts did not. In other words, you could be working 10 years in a district and only be getting paid a fourth year teacher's salary.

Not good for teacher morale and not good for your pocketbook.

Theme 2 - The ladder keeps growing

The amount of pay you get at each step and lane change varies depending on the contract bargained between one particular district and its unions. The number of steps themselves varies widely between districts, too.

Kate Walsh is with the non-profit National Council on Teacher Quality and she's studied teacher pay for years. She says "the worst districts have 30 steps and reserve the biggest increases for the end of a teacher's career," or what she calls "back-loading."

Our pay starts very low and then takes 15 steps to reach top pay. With step freezes, I'm not sure I'll ever get there. I've been working for seven years and it has not been easy to convince myself to stay in the profession. -- public school teacher, Berkley

We noticed in our survey that a number of districts have extended their salary schedule ladder in recent years so that it takes longer to get to the top. In the Shiawassee Regional Education Service District, for example, it used to take 11 years to make it to that district's top of the pay scale. Now it takes 21 years

David Hecker with the American Federations of Teachers in Michigan says adding more pay steps is almost never a proposal from the union but rather from management so "they can stretch out how long it takes for someone to get to the top of the scale."

Credit Image courtesy of National Council on Teacher Quality

That has a huge impact on lifetime earnings, says NCTQ's Kate Walsh. If higher pay is back loaded at the end like in Shiawasse RESD, a teacher will make substantially less in lifetime earnings. 

Theme 3 - "I want my three percent back!"

This type of quote came up a lot in our teacher survey, so I called up Craig Thiel at the Citizen's Research Council of Michigan to have him walk me through the details.

Thiel says in 2010 the costs for providing retiree health care benefits to retired teachers was increasing and causing "a strain" on school districts, so the Legislature decided to shift some of those costs from the district (employer) to school employees to the tune of 3%. 

So from 2010-12, 3% was taken out of school employees' salaries to help finance retiree health benefits for teachers who had already retired. All told $550 million was taken out during that time period, which affected roughly 280,000 school employees.

Was it legal? That's still up for debate. The state Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school employees, but Governor Rick Snyder appealed the decision. The case - and what to do with the money - is now before the Michigan Supreme Court. 

Theme 4 - "My health insurance costs have increased faster than my salary"

Lots has been written about the increased health costs for public service employees, so we're not going to get too far in the weeds here. But it's worth noting that a majority of teachers in our survey point to how those increased healthcare costs have led to either stagnant pay or a decrease in take-home pay

Theme 5 - It's "punitive to switch districts"

I first heard about this from a teacher friend who told me she couldn't change districts because most districts wouldn't pay her for all her prior years of experience. She had worked ten years in Wayne-Westland and wanted to move to a district in Oakland County, but they wouldn't compensate her all 10 years of her prior prior experience. It's a point that came up numerous times in our survey.

"I can't think of another sector where you effectively are counted as a less experienced employee because you didn't have your experience in that building or that region."

Josh Cowen is an education professorat Michigan State University and studies teacher mobility. He says "there's not a whole lot of justification for these prohibitions on years of experience earned," and he says there's nothing in the research that would justify doing so.

"I can't think of another sector where you effectively are counted as a less experienced employee because you didn't have your experience in that building or that region," says Cowen.

He and other critics say these kinds of restrictions hurt students because it makes it difficult to "staff places where kids need them the most."

Our friends over at Bridge Magazine did a great write-up on this, which you should check out. Here's an excerpt:

Say you’re a teacher with 10 years’ experience at Utica schools, which had layoffs last year. To work in Detroit, you’d have to accept nearly $36,000 less, going from more than $78,500 to just under $43,000 because eight years’ of experience wouldn’t count. Detroit already pays less, with teachers topping out at $65,265 after 10 years, compared with well over $78,000 in most districts. But the restriction put in place by the teachers – and agreed upon by the administration – makes that cut even more steep.

Theme 6 - "Leave our pensions alone."

Pensions came up a lot in our teacher survey -- specifically teachers were worried that their retirement system was "under attack" by the state Legislature. A public school teacher in Warren Woods described pensions as "the only thing they had going for them," and as of this week they don't have that anymore, either.

Governor Rick Snyder signed into law a new retirement plan for public school employees that automatically enrolls new employees into a 401(k) plan. A hybrid system will still be available to those employees that want a combination pension and 401(k), but it'll be more expensive for the teacher.

In our next post in this series, we'll look at how teacher pay stacks up to other comparable professions.

This post was updated on July 26, 2017 at 4:20pm to clarify the definition of a step freeze.

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.