Whitmer signs bill expanding who can substitute teach amid shortage

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill Monday that will allow more school district employees, including administrative staff, bus drivers and cafeteria workers, to serve as substitute teachers as long as they have high school diplomas.

Normally, state law requires schools to hire substitute teachers who have at least 60 semester hours of college credit. The bill allows districts, for the current school year only, to hire any school employee as a substitute as long as the person has a high school diploma.

In a statement, Whitmer's office said the bill would address a substitute teacher shortage that officials have described as "severe" and a "crisis" during committee hearings.

Students exit the bus at Riley Upper Elementary School in Livonia on Oct. 8, 2021. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill Monday, Dec. 27, 2021 that will allow more school district employees, including administrative staff, bus drivers and cafeteria workers, to serve as substitute teachers as long as they have high school degrees.

"The pandemic has been challenging for our children, teachers and parents, and our educators have gone above and beyond to ensure Michigan’s children have a bright future," the Democratic governor said in a statement Monday. "Allowing schools to employ school staff that students know as substitute teachers will help keep school doors open and students learning in the classroom the rest of the school year."

Officials have said the bill could allow paraprofessionals, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and administrative staff to serve as substitute teachers if needed.

The Michigan Education Association blasted the legislation earlier this month, saying the proposal "undermines the quality of education." Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, a former teacher, also opposed the bill. She questioned the idea of moving bus drivers and paraprofessionals who are needed in their positions each day to serve as substitute teachers.

"You're just kinda playing musical chairs with critical school employees," Polehanki said during a committee on Dec. 7.

But supporters of the bill have countered that the state is facing a substitute teacher crisis as the coronavirus continues to infect staff and students and something must be done.

Rep. Brad Paquette, R-Niles, another former teacher, sponsored the bill. He has said the legislation was meant to be temporary and provide "emergency" substitute teachers.

"There is an over-arching mentality especially from the educational elite that our bus drivers and our lunch ladies are just not capable of running a classroom," Paquette told a Senate committee earlier this month. "I got more wisdom in my high school days from the lunch lady than any of my ... teachers."

The pandemic has exacerbated the state's teacher shortage and hindered school districts' ability to fill vacant positions, said Paul Liabenow, executive director of the Michigan Elementary & Middle School Principals Association.

The bill "will provide districts with additional flexibility to fill substitute teaching vacancies so students can continue to learn in a safe, supportive environment," Liabenow said.

The Senate approved the bill 23-13 on Dec. 14. The House approved it 55-48 that same day.

cmauger@detroitnews.com