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Michigan schools say they can’t find enough substitute teachers

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Michigan schools are increasingly unable to find enough substitute teachers to fill their classrooms, a shortage that threatens to impact learning in the state’s already struggling public education system.

A survey of school leaders released Monday by Michigan Applied Public Policy Research and the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, both  at Michigan State University, found that 86 percent of Michigan school district administrators said the supply of short-term substitute teachers has decreased in the last five years.

Related: Taught by substitute teachers, Michigan students relied on YouTube for lessons

“There is a very broad-based perception that there is an acute shortage of substitutes and the problem appears to be getting worse,” said Nathan Burroughs, an MSU researcher and one of the authors of the survey findings.

That same survey found that almost two-thirds of traditional school districts (64 percent) that responded to the survey have classrooms for which they can’t find substitute teachers at least “several times a week.”

When that happens, schools must scramble to fill those classrooms with existing staff – typically with teachers who give up their planning periods (a time when they plan lessons and grade papers) and school administrators, creating a ripple effect throughout the building.

How often that happens is on the rise. Since the 2015-16 school year, the “fill rate” for substitute teachers (the percent of the time schools can find a substitute to fill a teacher absence) has dropped from 93 percent to 86 percent, according to data released to the House Fiscal Agency by EduStaff, the largest school staffing company operating in the state. About 450 districts and charters fill substitute teaching positions through EduStaff. 

“If a teacher is ill and you can’t find a qualified substitute, learning is going to be impacted,” said Dave Campbell, superintendent of Kalamazoo Intermediate School District.

The survey, which included responses from 177 traditional school districts, representing 42 percent of the state’s students, was released two weeks after a Bridge Magazine investigation into a growing use of long-term substitutes to lead Michigan classrooms. The use of long-term substitutes – who need only 60 college credits (the equivalent of an associate’s degree) rather than the four-year degree required of certified teachers  – has grown 10-fold in the past five years.

The shortage of short-term substitutes revealed in the MSU survey and the increased use of long-term substitutes both are at least partially a result of a growing teacher shortage in some parts of the state and in some subject areas.

A decade ago, schools seldom had trouble finding substitute teachers, and generally those substitutes were certified teachers who were either retired or recently graduated from college and still looking for a full-time post, said Ernest Tisdale, Michigan director for Edustaff.

“Now, everything has switched,” Tisdale said. “There’s a teacher shortage (and) my pool (of available substitutes) is individuals who aren’t necessarily interested in education or have an education background. Eighty perent of my sub pool are individuals who are working to subsidize their income and more money-oriented than anything.”

For people looking to make a few bucks, there are places they can make more money today in an era of low-unemployment rates, said Kalamazoo’s Campbell.

Substitute teacher pay in Michigan is typically $80 to $85 a day – the equivalent of about $11 to $12 an hour.

“We just don’t pay substitute teachers much,” Campbell said. “Any time the economy is good, we have trouble finding paraprofessionals, bus drivers, substitute teachers, because you can make more at Costco.”

Edustaff’s Tisdale said the short- and long-term substitute teacher shortage is primarily in urban and rural areas today, but, “if we continue the same trend we’re on, there’s going to be a bigger need and it’ll start to happen in the suburban districts.”

Related: Michigan desperate for Pre-K educators. And pays them poverty wages.

To try to address the shortage, the Michigan Legislature in 2018 lowered the threshold to qualify to be a substitute teacher from 90 college credits to 60 credits, and loosened rules that made it difficult for retired teachers to work as substitutes without endangering their pensions.

Survey results of school administrators however don’t indicate the substitute shortage has improved.

According to the survey:

  • 85 percent of school districts have classrooms in need of a substitute teacher that can’t be filled at least once a week.
  • 67 percent report a growing need for substitutes, and 37 percent have a “much greater need” than in the past.
  • 86 percent report a reduced supply of substitutes.

One legislative effort to further address the shortage of substitute teachers would allow student family members who have a high school diploma or a GED to serve as substitute teachers. The bill, introduced by Rep. Brad Paquette, R-Niles, a former teacher, is awaiting a hearing in the House Education Committee.

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