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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, November 22, 2010

When you repeat the lie loud enough and often enough, people start repeating it back wronger

by folkbum

We have talked here, ad nauseum, about the misleading statistic perpetuated by the mgmt of the Milwaukee Public Schools, that for every dollar they spend on teachers' salaries, they spend an additional 74 cents on teachers' benefits. This is misleading, as I have explained, because it contains lots of things that you don't normally think of as "benefits"--defined as stuff you negotiate for as a perk of the job--and a lot of costs related to retirees, rather than current employees.

The issue is complicated, some might say nuanced, but the top line number is an easy one to repeat a lot if you have a radio show, press release vending machine, or newspaper editorial page.

So here's a comment from a story today noting that we MPS teachers have voted to ratify a new contract:
74 cents of every dollar taken from taxpayers goes to pay and benefits of the teachers. Think about that for a second, 74% of the MPS budget.*
The poor soul, going around repeating a number that he doesn't understand to attack some people he doesn't like, and just being wrong, wrong in the process.

My back-o'-envelope calculations put teacher salaries and benefits, including the misleading parts thereof, at something south of $700 million (someone willing to dig up the budgets could probably find the line item with the right number, but, really, it should between $650m and $675m). That sounds like a lot of money--and it is!--but it's only around 60% of the grand total MPS spends of its whole $1.15 billion-with-a-bee budget. You would have to add in all the other employees (from secretaries and janitors to the superintendent) to break 74%.

But here's the thing, or at least a thing: As poignant a point as this guy thinks he's making--ZOMG! Union goons eat my tax dollars!--where else do you want a school district's money to go than to the people? Desks don't teach your children; computers don't feed them; a photocopier doesn't clean up after them. All the real work of educating the students is done by people and supported by people.

And, yes, MPS spends a lot on, say, busing, or books, or even fancy-pants consultants who fly in, drop their bombs, and fly out. But at its heart, the Milwaukee Public Schools, like every school district everywhere, is in the business of putting teachers into classrooms and other caring personnel into schools to support those teachers.

* I keep a running tally of great examples of irony. It wasn't that long ago when Wisconsin conservatives were pushing the "70% solution," which would demand that 70% of a school district's budget be spent in the classroom, on things like ... teachers. You'd think they'd be happy if they believed we were hitting 74%!

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