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Rich districts profit by sending substitutes to Michigan private schools

teacher at board

A rising number of Michigan public schools are staffing classrooms with long-term substitutes with as little as 60 college credits and no formal education training. Since August, Bridge has examined the implications of this practice for the state’s already-struggling schools. 

Affluent public school districts in Michigan are using long-term substitutes as part of a program that makes them millions of dollars in profits by employing their teachers in private schools.

Michigan’s “shared time” program allows public schools to get tax dollars to offer classes like foreign language, art, music and advanced placement courses at private, mostly religious schools.

Districts including Brighton, Berkley and Clarkston are using dozens of the long-term substitutes for the program, collecting roughly $7,900 in state aid for each private school student they educate regardless of the credentials of the teacher.

Berkley alone makes $3,000 in profit for each private school student it educates, or more than $4 million of the $12 million it takes in for a program that operates in four counties and 42 schools.

The districts acknowledge that teachers in the shared-time programs typically make less than those in their traditional classrooms and that long-term subs make even less. But it’s unclear how much more a district like Clarkston, with over 30 long-term subs among roughly 170 shared-time teachers, makes in profit because of the long-term subs.

State law requires teachers to have proper certification. But daily subs and long-term subs can be used and they can have as little as two years of college. Many may have college degrees –  and some teaching degrees – but not the required certification in a specific grade level or academic subject.

Overall, for shared-time districts, the extra revenue –  over $133 million statewide last year –  has been substantial at a time when schools statewide face financial problems. And though it’s been legal for nearly 50 years, the rapid growth of shared time in the last decade caused former Gov. Rick Snyder to propose a major cut in 2018.

The Legislature agreed to a cap on spending but not a cut.

“In general, everybody is hurt by it because it provides the education of non-public students with public dollars,” said David Martell, executive director of the Michigan School Business Officials, a statewide group supporting non-academic staff at public schools.

But he acknowledged the program has “made all the difference in the world” for “districts that were in a deficit or teetering on a deficit.”

The use of long-term subs statewide has increased more than tenfold in the past four years, up to more than 2,500 last year from 200. Blamed on a tight labor market for teachers, the increase is most pronounced in charter schools and districts with high poverty rates, including Benton Harbor and Detroit. 

Bridge Magazine has reported on the issue since August, and has found that larger and more affluent districts typically avoided employing many long-term substitutes except a few that sponsor shared-time programs.

Those districts, however, told Bridge that most of those long-term subs were among hundreds of others in the districts’ shared-time programs, not in the districts’ traditional classrooms. 

Same money, lower costs

The public schools profit because they get far more in state funding than they spend on teacher salaries in the private schools in part because those teachers are paid less and other costs –  like building maintenance, utilities and supplies are covered by the private school.

Snyder’s attempts to rein in the program failed in part because the program has few critics. Private schools have embraced the arrangement because it allows them to offer electives like foreign language while saving money on wages. Private-school parents are glad to get something for their tax dollars and public schools are getting additional money.

“It’s a great program,” said Brian Broderick, executive director of the Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools. “It works well for our schools, it works well for the public school districts, it works well for our students.”

In his budget pitch, Snyder said the “shared time” program “diverts resources from core instruction that improves student outcomes.” The legislature did not agree. And despite cutting nearly $1 billion from the 2019-20 budget, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did not make any cuts to the shared-time program.

In the beginning of “shared time,” public school districts did send their teachers into the private schools, Broderick said. But it’s become more common that the public school districts “take over” the pay of teachers that have long been in the private schools.

Greg Gray, superintendent of the Brighton schools, said his district gets over $15 million a year from the state to educate the private school students. After paying salaries, the district has a profit that he said is used for one-time expenses.

The Berkley schools of southern Oakland County have teachers working in 42 different non-public schools –  educating over 10,600 students – in Oakland, Wayne, Macomb and Lapeer counties. It touts the program as bringing the “Berkley Difference” to those schools and its growth came after the district took a $2.3 million hit in state funding in 2011.

Now, the profit from the shared-time program more than covers that shortfall annually, school officials said.

Yet of the 38 long-term subs the district hired last year, just two taught in the district’s traditional schools. The rest were among the dozens of teachers in shared-time program working in private schools, according to Jessica Stilger, a district spokeswoman.

Berkley officials said the 20-year old program helps both the district and the private schools by providing lower-cost teachers to the non-public schools and a economic boost to the Berkley district at the same time. The district's teachers' union, which does not represent the shared-time teachers, supports the program, they said.

"Through shared time... Berkley Schools is able to return dollars to the general fund and help maintain the quality programs we are known for," Lawrence Gallagher, a deputy superintendent, said in an email.

Christine Halliday, Berkley’s shared-time supervisor, said most are certified teachers but lack the endorsement required to teach in the subject area to which they’re currently assigned. Most make a salary but lower than what the district’s teachers working in its public schools

In Brighton, the district hired 33 long-term subs, most of which were in the shared time program, Gray said. In the Clarkston schools in northern Oakland County, it had 30 long-term subs last year and most were in its shared-time program, said Billie Pambid, director of Clarkston’s shared-time program.

Pambid defended the program and said the district uses long-term subs to help put qualified people in classrooms teaching language, music and other subjects. They have teachers in private schools across Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Here’s how the shared-time program works: If a private school had 100 students and two out of eight class periods –  one quarter of the day – at a private school involved a public school teacher, the public school could bill the state for the equivalent of 25 students.

With most districts getting about $8,000 from the state per student, that would amount to $200,000 to cover the teachers.

But a series of court rulings have allowed it and the program continues.

“It’s a win-win,” said Broderick of the non-public schools association.

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