Truth Squad: More clutching than punching in governor’s race

How we make the call

Truth Squad assigns five ratings to the political statements we review, in descending levels of accuracy:

No factual inaccuracies in the statement and no important information is missing
Mostly accurate
While the statement is largely accurate, it omits or exaggerates facts, or needs some clarification
Half accurate
Truths are interspersed with mistruths, or the speaker left out significant facts that render his/her remarks misleading in important respects
Mostly inaccurate
The major point or points made are untrue or misleading, even while some aspects of the claim may be accurate
The statement is false, or based on false underlying facts

All things considered, it's been a relatively quiet gubernatorial campaign this summer. Incumbent GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, leading in most polls, has refrained from aggressive attacks against his Democratic opponent, former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer. Schauer doesn't have campaign funds for expensive TV ads and has relied on the Democratic Governors Association to do that work for him.

Schauer has tapped other means to get his message across. That includes a fundraising email criticizing Snyder's tax on pensions and his call in June for “more accountability and transparency” by for-profit charter schools in the wake of a Detroit Free Press series on charter schools that found wasteful spending, substandard schools and poor accountability. Snyder's latest TV ad – which has the feel of a team with the lead trying to run out the clock – features a businesswoman who smiles a lot as she touts Snyder as the “most phenomenal listener.”

Who:Mark Schauer For Governor
What:Schauer statements on charter schools
The call:No foul

Statements Under Review:

Mark Schauer: “The governor just signed a budget that gives more taxpayer money to unaccountable, for-profit charter schools. A corporate takeover of public schools is wrong for our kids, wrong for our communities and wrong for taxpayers.”

Since 1994 – when 12 charter schools with 1,200 students opened – Michigan has gradually embraced charter school expansion with open arms. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, more than 140,000 students enrolled in 298 charter schools in Michigan in 2013. A 2013 report by the National Education Policy Center found that Michigan led the nation in the number of for-profit charter schools, with nearly four in five operated by for-profit management organizations. The state spent nearly $1 billion on charter schools in 2013-2014.

Grand Rapids-based National Heritage Academies, with 68 schools in eight states including Michigan, was second in the nation in the number of for-profit schools it operated. But to say the track record of charter schools has been mixed is an understatement. The year-long Detroit Free Press investigation found that of charter schools ranked by the state during the 2012-13 school year, 38 percent were below the 25th percentile in performance. That compared to 23 percent of traditional schools below the 25th percentile.

A 2013 report by the Royal Oak-based Education Trust Midwest, a nonprofit advocacy organization, found that 73 percent of charter schools performed below the average Michigan public school and that four in 10 charters performed worse than 75 percent of traditional public schools. On the other hand, a 2013 study of Michigan charter schools by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that charter school students gained more learning in a year than their counterparts at traditional public schools. In addition, a 2013 ranking by Bridge Magazine that weighed both academic achievement and socioeconomic status found that three of the top five schools in Michigan were charter schools.

Snyder has been an enthusiastic backer of charter schools, signing legislation in 2011 to lift the cap on the number schools by 2015. But the legislation did not provide the kind of oversight of school performance and accountability for spending that critics – and even some leaders in the charter school industry – have demanded. The Free Press investigation found that a majority of the worst-ranked charter schools in Michigan have been open 10 years or more. The investigation also found that charter management companies typically don't disclose salaries of those making more than $100,000, their management fees or their vendor list and bid documents. Reacting to the investigation's findings, Snyder said he would like to look at “transparency and accountability” for both charter and traditional schools “in a broad fashion.”

The call:No foul

Since the charter school movement began two decades ago, there have been notable examples of charter school achievement. The Bridge Magazine ranking of “Academic State Champs” is proof. But the same evaluation system concluded that four of the bottom five performing schools were also charters. It is also true too many charter schools continue to operate after a decade or more of poor performance. Equally troubling, the Free Press series documented deficiencies in oversight and management transparency. In that context, Schauer’s proposals for charter operator performance standards and greater transparency and his criticism of the governor’s perceived hands-off approach are within the bounds of the available public record.

Who:Democratic Governors Association
What:TV ad “Tough Choices”
The call:Foul

Relevant text of the ad

“Rick Snyder says he makes tough choices. Like cutting over a billion dollars from education. That's tough on kids. Rick Snyder raised taxes on retirement. That's tough on seniors. And Rick Snyder's own administration officials got huge pay raises. That's tou...Wait. That's not a tough choice. One employee got a 90 percent raise and makes $330,000 a year! Tell Rick Snyder...his tough choices are only tough on the middle class.”

The 30-second ad which ran in June continues a theme Schauer has pounded from the beginning of the campaign: that Snyder policies have benefited business at the expense of ordinary taxpayers and seniors. According to the Senate Fiscal Agency, Snyder approved a 2011-2012 gross school aid budget that resulted in about $930 million in funding cuts. But that calculation did not account for one-time appropriations totaling $455 million including $154 million in added per-pupil funding for “best practices” districts and $155 million to offset retirement costs. It is also worth noting that Michigan lost about $500 million in federal stimulus and education job grant funding from the previous budget.

In January, Snyder said that he raised education spending by $660 per student since he took office. In an analysis for Bridge Magazine, Mitch Bean, former director of the House Fiscal Agency, found that $439 of that was due to state spending and $222 due to a decrease in the total number of students.

In 2011, Snyder approved a tax package that raised income taxes on individuals by $1.4 million. That included a decrease in deductions for pensions for those born after 1945 and a decrease in homestead property tax credits. According to House Fiscal Agency analysis, a retired couple born after 1952 with $48,000 in pension income would pay $3,130 more in taxes.

In 2013, Jon Braeutigarn, Michigan's chief investment officer, received a 90 percent pay raise, from $175,000 to $333,000. Other investment officials got pay hikes of 80 percent or more. Administration officials said the hikes were needed to keep qualified people.

The call:Foul

It is true that Snyder cut per-pupil spending in his first K-12 budget, though the claim he cut overall education spending by more than $1 billion does not hold up. His cuts were under $1 billion, with the rest of the lost money the result of federal cuts. If this ad had stuck to the facts, there would not be a problem. Instead, it overreached. And to be fair, Snyder has raised education spending since then.

Snyder did raise taxes on middle class residents and senior citizens. It is also true that several Treasury Department investment specialists got pay hikes of 80 percent or more.

Who:Mark Schauer For Governor
What:Online Petition
The call:No foul

Relevant text of the ad:

The petition reflects Schauer's assertion that the tax shift Snyder pushed through in 2011 is a giveaway to business and an unfair tax burden on senior citizens, middle-class families and low-income residents. Snyder backed a package that swapped the Single Business Tax for a 6 percent corporate tax, lowered pension deductions, halted a scheduled drop in the state income tax, lowered homestead tax credits and eliminated a variety of other tax credits.

Analysis by the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency in 2011 pegged the business tax cut for 2012-2013 at about $1.65 billion, or about 83 percent. To make up for lost revenue, the tax package raised income taxes on individuals by about $1.4 billion. It lowered pension deductions on a sliding scale for those born after 1945, adding an estimated $343 million in taxes; reduced low-income tax credits from 20 percent to 6 percent, adding $262 million; froze the state income tax at 4.25 percent, adding an estimated $223 million; and lowered homestead property tax credits, raising property taxes by $270 million. Snyder pitched the tax shift as both a jobs creator and a move toward tax fairness.

Michigan State University economist Charles Ballard noted at the time of its passage that it was possible under the former tax system for a couple with retirement income over $100,000 to pay no state income tax. Snyder said it is unfair to ask other taxpayers to pay the cost of services seniors need while they pay nothing.

The call:No foul

It is indisputable that Snyder raised taxes on individuals while he cut taxes for business. In essence, he traded a $1.7 billion cut in business tax for a $1.4 billion hike in personal income tax. That includes a substantial raise in taxes on pensions. Snyder argued that it is unfair to impose taxes on younger workers while some retirees enjoy comfortable incomes and pay no tax. But it is also true his tax shift imposed higher income taxes on individuals on a variety of other fronts, including cuts in low-income tax credits and homestead property tax credits.

Who:Rick Snyder For Michigan
What:TV ad "Stacey"
The call:No foul

Relevant text of the ad, narrated by a small-business owner:

“I had this crazy idea to invent a flatbread. And I sat down with Rick. He is the most phenomenal listener. What Rick taught me was, whatever you do, you have to have passion. And you have to bring your family into it. Rick looks at the State of Michigan, and all the people in it, as part of his family. Rick wants to help people. The moms and the dads and the kids. He really wants to help.”

The 30-second TV ad, set to soft notes of a saxophone, features a smiling Stacey Marsh, co-founder of Flatout Inc. The Saline-based company, which employs about 145 workers, makes sandwich wrap products that are distributed across the United States and Canada. Marsh talks about advice she got from Snyder when she and her husband, Mike, launched Flatout in 2000. Snyder singled out the couple at his 2011 inaugural address as a “role model” for Michigan's future. Each donated the maximum $3,400 individual contribution in 2009 to his campaign.

The call:No foul

This innocuous personal testimonial from a friend and supporter seems crafted to soften Snyder’s image, particularly among women, in an election year. Truth Squad takes no position on the governor’s listening skills.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Chuck Fellows
Thu, 07/10/2014 - 12:43pm
In respect to the Free Press series about Charter Schools that candidate Schauer based his remarks upon, understand that the series' perspective was off target. "Look closely—you’ll recognize the formula: Underfund schools. Overcrowd classrooms. Mandate standardized tests sold by private-sector firms that “prove” these schools are failures. Blame teachers and their unions for awful test scores. In the bargain, weaken those unions, the largest labor organizations remaining in the United States. Push nonunion, profit-oriented charter schools as a solution." foundation for the article's tone and direction is a wee bit more than suspect. The Charters that embrace innovation and change are being "used" to support a move to privatization. The series writers didn't pick up on that. Nor has the educational community at large. We are all being "Zoomed" by a distraction - the unnecessary fight between traditonal and Charter. There is a question from statistics that applies to the current system of education that we embrace. Is the system really capable of producing the desired result? if that is not determined first all the stats and scores, averages and percentiles are meaningless. Thus the basis for the report being used by politicians for electoral gain is - meaningless. My concern is that we have thousands of people and billions of dollars working away within a system that is incapable of producing the desired result due primarily to the "bureaucratic drag" and "institutional petrification" that has built up since "Nation at Risk" was published. The reaction to that report and the consequences forced educators into a defensive posture which cemented our adherance to centuries old methods and means and completely shut down innovation (except for small schools like Big Picture Schools, CES Schools, Sudbury Valley that predate the "Charter" movement and some Charters in the current era). We have too few asking "What is the desired result and what does it look like?" and then asking "Are our current methods and means capable of producing that result?" As Covey has said we need to "put first things first", and accountability standardized test results, content over understanding, etc. and politics are not "first things". Children learning is the first thing. Fortunately many children (about 75%) don't let their schooling get in the way of their education (Twain, I believe). That seems a pretty poor result to strive for, but that is what the system has shown it is capable of.
Charles Richards
Thu, 07/10/2014 - 1:55pm
" The year-long Detroit Free Press investigation found that of charter schools ranked by the state during the 2012-13 school year, 38 percent were below the 25th percentile in performance. That compared to 23 percent of traditional schools below the 25th percentile." Think about that for a moment. Is that a fair comparison? No, it is not. A high proportion of charter schools are in low-income, poverty stricken areas with a lot of stress and dysfunctional families. Most schools do not perform well in such areas. The only fair, legitimate comparison is between charter schools and traditional schools in the same areas. ".But the legislation did not provide the kind of oversight of school performance and accountability for spending that critics – and even some leaders in the charter school industry – have demanded." Aside from safety and sanitation, are restaurants, grocery stores and other retail outlets subject to government oversight? No, oversight from their customers seems to be sufficient to ensure their performance. Establishments that do not deliver good value for the customers money go out of business. It would seem that poor charter schools that remain in business do so because the parents who send their children there are insufficiently demanding. "The investigation also found that charter management companies typically don’t disclose salaries of those making more than $100,000, their management fees or their vendor list and bid documents." All public schools do all of these things and yet many of them do a terrible job of educating students What is more desirable? A school that pays its CEO an exorbitant salary, but a high percentage of whose graduates are college ready or prepared to succeed in the world, or a school that is fully accountable to the government, but whose students have not received a good education?
Carol Waltman
Thu, 07/10/2014 - 3:37pm
I have no problem with taxing pensions as long as they are taxed in the same manner as income. Retirement savings should, however, be taxed at the same rate as long term investments. For those who have pensions that pay out a substantial percentage of annual earnings, there is no reason not to tax like ordinary income. For those who have no pension and must depend on income from investments, those investments represent savings over time... money out of the pockets of the retirees. To tax investment income in retirement but not pensions discriminates against those who have no pension.
Fri, 07/11/2014 - 3:28pm
The difference here is when you buy an investment you buy it with money that you likely paid taxes once already, (state and Federal) when you made it. Then you pay long term capital gains taxes (state and federal) on it when you sell (realize the gain) the investment. Pension income was never taxed (state or fed) going into the pension and taxed only coming out (fed only, no state income tax under old system). Even now with the new MI tax law, people pay very little income tax on their pension income. Michigan is one of only two states not taxing pension income, except for states with no state income tax, so you could always move to one of these.