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Opinion | Michigan’s teacher shortage caused by decades of bad public policy

The pandemic has exposed many inequalities in society that have been ever present. Sadly, for Michigan this includes schools. The current teacher shortage is of no surprise to those in the field.

The roots of that shortage go back decades, and the problem can’t be solved overnight.

Paul Ruth
Paul Ruth teaches high school English in Eastpointe Public Schools in Macomb County. (Courtesy photo)

I’ve witnessed some of the changes that have led to today’s teacher shortage in my time working in the Michigan public education system.

In 2008 when I completed a bachelor’s of English with a secondary teaching certification from MacMurray College, there was a surplus of teachers for Michigan classrooms.  At the time the state had so many highly qualified teachers, many started subbing first as a leg into full time jobs.

Many districts in Michigan started to outsource their substitute teachers. The outsourcing was spurred on by former Governor Rick Snyder’s encouragement of so-called best practices. These practices also led to the outsourcing of bus drivers and custodians, which were replaced by lower paid, less benefited outsourced positions. This was an effort to save districts money and make the education system more cost efficient.

This matters to the ongoing teacher shortage because, before this, substitutes were employed by districts and could build time in the retirement system. I ended up subbing for five years at the beginning of my career, which would have equated to several years towards my retirement, but they didn’t.

I started my full-time career at a high school chartered by the closed Highland Park school system operated by Leona Group. This is another aspect that eroded the retirement system, which used to be a major draw to the profession. As charters expanded almost without check across the state, most did not enroll in the statewide retirement system. It was one of many things that made the fund unstable. I only spent ten weeks there, but I was subjected to a toxic corporate environment that tried to quell my own humanity in caring for students.

I switched jobs to then-named East Detroit Public Schools. That district’s story of an attempted state takeover is well-documented. Yet what I am currently experiencing there (the district is now named Eastpointe) teaching high school English is not uncommon in schools across the state. Textbooks lag in physical quality or are out of date, classrooms are not being regularly updated or maintained, professional development where teachers are essentially blamed for society’s failings, and an evaluation system more about how the principal looks than supporting good teachers, are all aspects rampant in schools.

All while this was developing, school funding was dramatically cut in the wake of the Great Recession. Pay was frozen for teachers across the state sometimes for 10 years or more and only slight increases lagging well behind the inflation rate for others. This led to the embarrassing fact that the average teacher salary in 2009-10 was higher than it was in the 20017-18 school year not counting inflation. 

Even more alarming is the average teacher pay in Michigan in 1990 compared to recent years. According to the National Center on Educational Statistics, in 1990 dollars, the average starting pay was $22,400, which is the equivalent of $45,992 today. How many teachers in recent memory started above $42,000?

In 1990, the overall average teacher salary was $37,800, which is the equivalent of $77,612 in 2021 dollars. In 2018-19, the average was just over $62,000 according to the state.

It may seem simple to fix the teacher shortage problem by increasing classroom funding and raising teacher pay, right? Not exactly. Michigan also used to have robust teacher education programs at many colleges and universities. Those have also waned or outright closed as so many turned away from the profession. The system to create a solid pool of Michigan teachers is in tatters. Residency programs are just filling holes to buy time for people to earn certification.

Michigan has been funding tests but not textbooks. It has required certifications but not respectable pay. For the average Michigan parent though it comes down to two questions: Who do you want around your children for more than 180 days of the year? And, would it be better for your child if the best people competed for that job?

Now that the pandemic has put such a strain on the profession that so many have taken quicker retirements, where might we go from here? It is a problem that decades of poor policy created without an easy or timely solution. It is a profession still stuck in the Great Recession reeling in a pandemic.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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