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A rash of recent reports suggests Michigan faces a widespread shortage of classroom teachers. Some argue that this stems from recent legislative reforms that impact teachers, such as changes to collective bargaining, tenure and pensions. A close look at the data reveals, however, that these concerns are overblown, and if districts are having a hard time finding teachers they mostly have themselves to blame.

The claims of a looming teacher shortage are based on a couple pieces of evidence: Fewer Michigan college students are completing teacher preparation programs and the state education department is giving out fewer new professional certificates.

These numbers are declining even more quickly than the state’s public school student population is declining. But it doesn’t necessarily mean our state lacks enough capable, or even properly credentialed, teachers.

Several years ago Michigan was preparing to have more than two elementary teachers ready for every available elementary teaching job. The recent recession saw more people prepping for teaching jobs just as fewer and fewer jobs were becoming available. Rather than signaling a shortage, the drop in teacher prep program enrollments may be a result of aspiring teachers responding to this drop in demand for teaching jobs.

It’s important to remember that licensed teachers who don’t land jobs don’t just disappear forever. The Michigan Department of Education says there are about 104,000 actively certified instructors of working age who live in Michigan but aren’t teaching in public schools. This is an enormous supply of potential teachers — in fact, it’s more than the current number of teachers who are actively employed.

A 2016 MDE survey of 360 teachers who chose not to renew their state license offers insights into why many have left the profession. One in three cited a move to another state, a family or medical situation, or a decision to pursue more education as their primary reason.

Only one in eight said they didn’t renew certification due to issues surrounding pay and working conditions. Interestingly, more respondents told MDE their primary reason for not renewing was they couldn’t find or keep a job.

Investigations by Michigan Capitol Confidential, an online news site published by the Mackinac Center, have also found anecdotal examples that cast doubt on the problem of a widespread shortage. For instance, Novi schools received 952 applicants for one opening, while the Portage school district near Kalamazoo received an average of 41 applicants for each open position.

Outliers and averages don’t rule out chronic shortages in certain subject areas, however. While elementary teachers are perennially abundant, it’s often a challenge to find competent physics or computer science teachers. These candidates are likelier to have higher-paying career alternatives. Special education teachers are often hard to come by as well.

Yet districts have not changed policies to offer higher salaries to teachers of subject areas in high demand. Districts continue to pay all teachers’ salaries based only on years on the job and academic credentials — with no exceptions.

Some are starting to buck this trend. The Holly School District, for example, gives the superintendent discretion to offer higher entry-level pay to qualified candidates in hard-to-fill positions. But most districts continue to pay teachers as if they were industrial-era, assembly-line workers.

Differentiating teacher pay based on districts’ needs would help meet the demand side of this problem. The state endorses more potential teachers at the elementary level than the secondary level. Certificates to teach English language arts and social studies are much more numerous than those to teach math and science. Financial incentives could change those outputs.

The supply of candidates could be right-sized, too. MDE has authority to approve alternative certification programs that make classroom teaching more appealing and attainable to those who have special expertise or may want to change careers to help children. Most research finds little or no relationship between the type of certification a teacher holds and the results they obtain.

An authentic crisis would prompt serious action to address both the supply and demand of qualified professionals. But this cry of “teacher shortage” should fall on deaf ears, because there’s little evidence that it’s widespread, and to the extent that schools struggle to find quality teachers, it’s largely because they’ve handcuffed themselves.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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