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Opinion | Teacher shortages hobble Michigan schools. Here’s how to fix it

Educators knew. Policymakers often denied or ignored the issue.

For a decade across the country, the teacher shortage quietly grew. In Michigan, the shortage was deepened by the lowest inflation-adjusted revenue increase of any state in the nation over two decades.

Michael Rice
Michael Rice is state superintendent of Michigan public schools. (Courtesy photo)

When I began as state superintendent in August 2019, many Michigan policymakers still denied the widespread nature of the shortage that my fellow superintendents and I had been pointing out for a few years. We didn’t need a study to tell us it was harder to fill teaching positions.

Now, sadly, the pandemic has exacerbated the shortage and, as a result, increased the stress on teachers, support staff, and school administrators, and further caused undeserved strain on our children.

Why did it become harder for school districts to hire teachers?

Six studies in six years said the same thing: Michigan has underfunded its public school children and schools.

In 2011, the state legislature cut $470 per pupil, which led to layoffs, higher class sizes, and reductions in support staff for students and educators in schools. Other legislative actions mandating staff to pay a greater share of health insurance and retirement costs and creating educator evaluation and school accountability laws failed to improve public schools, further demoralized educators, and adversely affected the teacher pipeline.

How should the state address the teacher shortage?

Increasing the numbers of certified teachers was one of the goals adopted last year by the State Board of Education in the state’s Top 10 Strategic Education Plan.

The Michigan Department of Education’s Welcome Back Proud Michigan Educator campaign reached out to thousands of once certified teachers and provided flexibility in the requirements to return to the classroom. MDE also approved new alternative route teacher certification providers and temporary certification flexibility for special education teachers and social workers.

Given districts’ federal pandemic relief funding and a historic state education budget negotiated by the governor and legislature, MDE has strongly encouraged districts to boost early-career teacher salaries to increase the numbers of certified individuals who wish to teach.

MDE has also encouraged districts to begin Grow Your Own programs for school support staff who aspire to be teachers and for students who have an interest in teaching. Some federal Title II funding from MDE and some initial funding from the most recent budget negotiated by the governor and legislature are initial small investments for school districts to grow educators. Each of these can produce more teachers and more diverse teachers in Michigan schools in the coming years.

These efforts are important but — in the absence of major, targeted investments of federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding or existing state revenue by the legislature — are not enough.

Today’s policymakers can lead the way by investing anywhere between $300 million and $500 million over the next five years in the following strategies to help reverse Michigan’s teacher shortage crisis:

  • Tuition and other expense reimbursement for current college students who make a commitment to pursue teaching. If we expect a major commitment from a wave of young people as our next generation of educators in our great state, the least we can do is to make sure that they don’t go into debt to perform this all-important public service.
  • Loan forgiveness for recent college graduates who commit to careers in education and for current teachers who are working to pay off college loans. 
  • Scholarships for high school seniors who aspire to and commit to a career in teaching. States as close as Indiana have these sorts of programs. We should as well.
  • Reviving and strengthening the teacher preparation pipeline in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula which, unlike the rest of the state, have only a single teacher preparation program that produces significant teacher candidates.
  • Supporting better the mentoring of new teachers and easing restrictions on accepting teacher licenses from other states to help recruit and retain quality teachers in Michigan.

Collectively, we have to change the conditions under which teachers teach and children learn — class sizes, physical conditions in schools, including better ventilation and climate control, and the amount of support for staff and students in schools. We have to encourage and provide more opportunities for the voices of our teaching staff to share reflections about the directions of schools and districts. We know from research that, next to better compensation, these are factors that affect recruitment and retention in the field.

No one strategy or effort will rebuild the teacher pipeline in the state, which has been chipped away at in myriad ways over the last decade. With the above efforts, though, we can begin to rebuild the pipeline and profession in support of our children.

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