Opinion: Michigan's public schools face educator shortage crisis

Paula Herbart

There is a crisis in our public schools that threatens a generation of students. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Michigan has experienced a 70.7% decline in enrollment in teacher-education programs in the last decade. The only state with a worse decline in students studying to become teachers is Oklahoma. This shortage extends to other school employees, from bus drivers to paraprofessionals.

The problem is compounded by another startling statistic: 1 in 5 new teachers leave the classroom within the first five years of entering the profession. These two trends have resulted in an educator shortage crisis in Michigan.

Recently, Public Policy Associates, on behalf of the Michigan Education Association, AFT-Michigan and the Middle Cities Education Association conducted a series of educator listening sessions in five locations around the state. The purpose of the sessions was to identify solutions that will increase the number of aspiring educators and help retain the current educator workforce.

Participants identified a wide variety of solutions to the educator shortage crisis.

Fourth grade teacher Roberta Lusk, left, helps Toyoko Collins,10, with her writers workshop assignment.

Of course, compensation came up in every session. Over the past few decades, Michigan has starved public education to fund corporate tax cuts, and the results have devastated the teaching profession. A recent study by Michigan State University showed Michigan last among all states in education funding increases over the last 25 years. 

Dramatic disinvestment in our public schools has depressed salaries which is a major factor in our state’s educator shortage, especially combined with ever increasing out-of-pocket costs for health insurance and retirement. Participants in the listening sessions in every city recommended increasing compensation for educators and offering recruiting bonuses to new teachers.

New teachers were especially vocal when it came to compensation. At current salary levels, going to college to become a teacher just does not make economic sense.  Students cannot afford to amass large student loan debt that will take several years to pay off because salaries are so low.

Under U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, 99% of applications for a federal student loan forgiveness program were denied from May 2018 through May 2019, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. In Michigan, college graduates averaged $32,000 in student loan debt in 2017 — the eighth-highest in the nation, according to a recent Century Foundation study.

Educators also offered solutions that won’t cost money to implement.

Most educators want a greater voice in education reform decisions. In recent years, policymakers have instituted reform after reform aimed at improving student achievement. They have failed miserably. 

Educators believe that increased standardized testing is not the answer, which should be obvious given the results. A common refrain was, “More testing means less teaching.” Relying on student scores (on tests students do not care about and which do not affect their grade), is not an accurate measure of teacher effectiveness.

Participants were also weary of attacks on the teaching profession by policymakers in Lansing. Many felt these attacks have led to plummeting teacher morale, causing more educators to leave the classroom. They want the attacks to stop and they want to be treated like professionals.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives the State of the State address.

If there is one bright spot in the situation we find our schools and our school employees in, it is this: For the second year in a row, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has proposed the largest education funding increase in two decades. If the Legislature follows that recommendation, school employees may begin to see light at the end of what has been a very long, dark tunnel.

Paul Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.