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Pro-union 'teacher' ad gets warning from Truth Squad


Who: Protect Our Jobs

What: TV ad

Truth Squad call: Warning

Though under a "Protect Working Families" logo, the ad is funded by Protect Our Jobs, the labor-backed initiative that seeks passage of a constitutional amendment to guarantee collective bargaining in Michigan. Project Our Jobs has already raised more than $8 million toward that end. The initiative was stalled Aug. 15 when the Board of State Canvassers deadlocked 2-2 on whether to put it on the Nov. 6 ballot. Attorneys for Protect Our Jobs have filed appeals with the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

The ad features Karen Kuciel, a fifth-grade teacher in the Warren Consolidated School District, with shots of children in a classroom.

Questionable statement: "Each day, when the kids leave and it’s quiet, teachers take stock. What worked, what didn’t? It’s not just about funding – it’s class size, training, supplies, even books."

The fundamental premise of the ad is a correlation between class size and classroom performance. Collective bargaining, it further suggests, is a key, as well, to good schools. The first half of that premise -- that class size and performance are linked -- has evidence behind it. The second -- tying quality schools to collective bargaining -- is debatable.

A review of numerous studies of class size by The Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Board Association, found a connection between reduced class size and achievement.

It cited gains by Tennessee schools with smaller classes, noting that minority and inner-city children gained the most from smaller classes -- and the more years spent in reduced classes, the longer lasting the benefits. Another study found gains for a similar program in Wisconsin. A 1997 review of education research by the Policy Information Center also found ties between class size and achievement. It is harder to prove a correlation between acquisition of advanced degrees and enhanced student achievement, as indicated by a review of teacher training, teacher quality and student achievement by the Urban Institute.

It is also problematic to find a causal link between teaching materials and performance, though one review of literature recorded a connection between teacher attrition and lack of teaching supplies. A 2010 national survey found that teachers spent a total of $398 out of their own pocket on school supplies in the 2009-10 school year and an additional $538 on instructional materials.

Questionable statement: "And teachers negotiate all of that with the school district when they have collective bargaining. Teachers have collective bargaining so they can fight for things like smaller class sizes and good materials, to help kids learn."

Union contracts are typically fought over a number of issues, not least of which is teacher salary, but also encompassing health-care benefits, pensions and, in many cases, class size. The 2008 contract negotiated with Okemos Public Schools typifies how class size is built into teaching contracts. Over the decades, teacher bargaining rights in Michigan paved the way to relatively generous salaries and attractive retirement benefits. The average teacher salary of $56,069 in 2009 ranked 11th highest in the nation, according to the National Education Association.

A study by The Mackinac Center, a conservative -- and often anti-union -- think tank found Michigan's teacher salaries highest in the nation when the relative wealth of a state is factored in.

Questionable statement: "Collective Bargaining helps our kids. So I’m voting 'Yes' for collective bargaining."

Analysis of school districts with collective bargaining reveals wildly uneven academic results, likely related to an array of socioeconomic factors, including the education level of parents and their income, as well as the amount of time parents spend on school matters with their children. High schools including East Grand Rapids and Forest Hills Central in prosperous areas of West Michigan typically rank among top performers in the state. Their staffs have collective bargaining agreements. But so do Detroit's high schools, which lead the state in poor performance.

The record of charter schools, typically non-union, also is mixed. Black River, a Holland charter school, was ranked second in the state in 2012 by U.S. News & World Report. But a 2011 review by the Detroit Free Press found that a majority of Michigan charter schools ranked in the bottom half of all public schools.

Overall, Michigan's schools rank below average, according to a 2011 analysis of fourth- and eighth-grade test score data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics and reported by the Daily Beast. Michigan ranked 33rd of 52, a list that included overseas military bases and the District of Columbia. Its analysis focused on the percentage of students with top scores on the test.

According to a group opposed to public school teachers' unions -- -- 99 percent of Michigan public school teachers are unionized.

Four of the top five states in the Daily Beast achievement ranking -- Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Minnesota -- had unionization rates of 99 percent or higher. In 2011, Michigan's overall scores for fourth-grade students ranked below the national average in math and reading, below average for eighth-grade students in math and just above average in reading.

Overall impression: The ad raises legitimate points about the importance of class size in quality education. Given the uneven performance record of unionized school districts, its premise that collective bargaining "helps kids" is harder to prove.

Foul or no foul: Warning. The ad gets an "incomplete" for its analysis of complex educational issues.

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