Some of us might not believe Wisconsin’s budget battle had gone viral unless it was debated on national TV by, say, comedian David Letterman and, oh, a senator from Kentucky.
Lo and behold:
On the Feb. 24, 2011 edition of CBS-TV’s "Late Show with David Letterman," the inimitable talk show host raised the Wisconsin controversy with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
"Why don’t we just raise the taxes and let these folks have their collective bargaining, have their union representation and go back to their jobs?"
Letterman’s reference was to Wisconsin public school teachers who had skipped school to protest Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill, which was introduced 10 days earlier. That measure would require most public employees to pay more for benefits, to help close a deficit in the state budget ending June 30, 2011. It would also eliminate collective bargaining rights for some public employees and sharply curtail them for others, a move Walker says is aimed at helping balance future state and local government budgets.
Paul, a freshman senator and co-founder of the Senate Tea Party Caucus, responded to Letterman’s question by saying:
"But I guess the argument is -- is, you have to look at the details and say: Have we been generous with (public school) teachers in Wisconsin? The average teacher in Wisconsin’s making $89,000 a year to work nine months."
Is Paul right?
The $89,000 claim prompted this comment from a guy named Tom on the Wisconsin Unions page of the Facebook website: "Holy cats, Batman, my wife is hiding $40,000 a year from her paychecks."
Paul made a similar claim, varying his wording a little, a day earlier on ABC-TV’s "Good Morning America." He told host George Stephanopoulos that Wisconsin teachers "are making $89,000 a year. Their benefits greatly exceed the private sector."
In the Letterman interview, Paul seemed to be saying $89,000 was the average salary for a public school teacher in Wisconsin. But on "Good Morning America," he seemed to suggest that the $89,000 included salary plus benefits, just as Fox Business Network anchor Eric Bolling did in making a similar claim that was assessed by our colleagues at PolitiFact National.
We left messages with two staffers in the senator’s office, asking for clarification of Paul’s statements and for evidence to back up the figure, but got no response.
In the Wisconsin budget debate, both sides have said it’s important to look at overall compensation -- pay and benefits. So, by that measure, is the average public school teacher in Wisconsin "making $89,000 a year"?
The latest figures available are for 2009-2010, according to a state Department of Public Instruction spokesman. Public school teachers in Wisconsin earned an average of $49,816 in salary plus $25,325 in benefits for a total of $75,141.
That’s about 16 percent less than the $89,000 claimed by Paul.
The $75,141 total compensation figure, of course, is a statewide average.
The figures vary across districts, according to tallies from the Department of Public Instruction. The average total compensation ranged from just over $55,000 in the Linn Joint 6 School District in Lake Geneva near the Wisconsin-Illinois border to just over $103,000 in the Nicolet district in suburban Milwaukee.
Time for the Truth-O-Meter.
Paul said twice on national television that the average public school teacher in Wisconsin "is making $89,000 a year." We’re assuming his figure isn’t just for salary, in which case his number would be too high by $40,000. But even if he meant salary plus benefits, his figure is too high by $14,000.
We rate Paul’s statement False.
Editor’s note: On March 8, 2011, this item was changed to correct an error in information provided by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. In 2009-2010, public school teachers in Wisconsin earned an average of $49,816 in salary (not $49,093), plus $25,325 in benefits (not $25,750), for a total of $75,141 (not $74,843).