Labor Voices: Michigan lacks substitute teachers

Steven Cook

As legislators continue to attack school employees’ wages, benefits and pensions, the result isn’t just a shortage of full-time teachers. School districts are struggling to find substitute teachers — a trend that could reach crisis proportions if not addressed quickly.

The shortage of substitutes has already reached an acute level in many districts — which explains the aggressive marketing campaign by companies that provide districts with subs. One company has even purchased 40 billboards around the state announcing “SUBSTITUTE TEACHERS NEEDED.”

Increasingly, districts simply cannot fill all their classrooms with teachers on a daily basis. They must resort to pulling principals out of their offices and taking away the preparation period of other teachers to fill the voids. A simple flu bug among the staff could cripple a building and threaten the education of students.

The average pay for a substitute teacher in Michigan is $80-$90 a day—equating to an annual salary around the $15,000 poverty level for a family. However the demands, stress and responsibility of teaching six or seven classes of 30 or more students far exceeds that of other low wage workers.

Low pay and difficulty of the job partly explain the sub shortage, but another factor is the overall decline of college students choosing to enter the teaching profession – historically a major hiring pool for substitutes.

In less than a decade, there has been a nearly 40 percent decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs in Michigan colleges and universities. This drastic decline is a direct result of the continuing assault on the teaching profession emanating from Lansing politicians.

Students are acutely aware of the diminishment of the profession, both in terms of respect and the reductions in compensation, fringe benefits and pensions. Veteran teachers are increasingly reluctant to encourage students to consider teaching as a career in light of these attacks.

School retirees are also a pool of potential substitutes. The Legislature attempted to address the shortage last year by allowing retired teachers to return to the classroom to teach subjects with a “critical shortage” of qualified teachers (including substitutes in all subjects), without jeopardizing their retirement benefits or health care. However, that legislation sunsets July 1, 2018.

Some legislators are considering lowering the requirement that substitute teachers must have completed 90 hours of college credit to 60 hours to be eligible to substitute teach. However, reducing qualifications for those responsible for teaching our children is not sound policy.

The sub shortage has been exacerbated as districts have increased their reliance on “long-term substitutes” when they cannot find enough teachers to fill their staffing needs at the beginning of the school year.

In the Wayne-Westland school district, they have increased the sub rate from $90 per day to $110 per day for employees who accept long-term substitute assignments to fill open positions.

This crisis was highlighted last month when the Detroit Community School District shut down its Reading Recovery program, designed to help at risk first-graders read and write with one-on-one instruction. Administrators needed to reassign the 23 teachers to full classrooms as a result of the severe teacher shortage in the district. A new law, which goes into to effect this year will eventually require third-graders to be held back if they fall behind in reading. Elimination of the Reading Recovery program will most certainly result in a higher retention rate.

The solution to the increasing teacher shortage crisis — both in substitute and full time teachers — begins with a recognition of the value of the teaching profession. Continued reductions in compensation will only exacerbate the crisis. Legislators should think about that as they return to session this month and continue their attack on teacher pensions.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.