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Michigan struggles with lack of sub teachers

By Erin Dietzer/The Holland Sentinel • Dec 26, 2017 at 2:00 PM

Every year, the Michigan Department of Education puts out a critical shortage list, which are disciplines where schools have a difficult time finding qualified job candidates.

For the past few years, substitute teacher shortage reports from multiple districts have made the list.

The problem of the lack of substitutes is known and discussed in school districts and the state Legislature. But it’s a tough nut to crack, since there’s more than one reason the fill rates are down.

Holland Public Schools Superintendent Brian Davis said that, at one point, about 80 percent of substitute teachers were recent education graduates with teaching certification, who used the job to demonstrate their skills to a district and gain classroom experience.

However, Michigan is one of many states in the country that is seeing fewer people pursue teaching as a career. The latest report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Title II program, which supports teacher training and professional development, shows enrollment in teacher prep at the college level is falling in many states. An analysis by Bridge Magazine found the total number of Michigan college students studying to become a teacher is down by more than 50 percent since 2008.

“There remains a shortage across the state, and that shortage is true here in West Michigan,” Davis said. “Holland Public continues to look for more substitute teachers and have a need to fill classrooms when our teachers are unable to be in the classroom.”

Since the pool of future teachers is down, schools have repeatedly had to turn to a much wider and diverse pool of workers. Clark Galloway, president of substitute teacher employment company EDUstaff, has repeatedly said the average substitute teacher now is not a new education graduate, but a 43-year-old mom who is returning to work.

A bigger pool of workers may seem like a good thing. However, it’s a challenge for areas like West Michigan, where there is low unemployment. In October, Ottawa, Allegan and Kent counties had some of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, and rates well below the national average. The Grand Rapids-Wyoming area — which includes Kent, Montcalm, Ottawa and Barry counties — had unemployment at 3.4 percent.

As a result, all kinds of businesses are competing with each other to fill positions with a relatively small number of people looking for work. Lakeshore businesses say their top barrier to growth is a lack of talent, according to the 2017 Business Intelligence Report compiled by Lakeshore Advantage.

Efforts have been made to make substitute teaching a more appealing position, like increasing pay. Typical pay for a substitute in Michigan is $60 to $75 a day, and the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District increased the pay to $90 a day a few years ago to encourage more people to be subs.

The state Legislature has also made some efforts. In 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 219 into law, which allows retired teachers to return to the classroom to fill positions where there’s a critical shortage without risking their retirement benefits or health care.

Some of these efforts appear to be working. West Ottawa Superintendent Tom Martin said there have been times the district has had problems getting subs, but they’re not currently having issues.

More recently, the state is considering a bill that would lower substitute teacher requirements. Currently, people who wish to be substitutes must have at least 90 hours of college credit and pass a criminal background check. Some districts also require candidates to hold a valid or expired Michigan teaching certificate.

House Bill 4069, introduced by state Rep. Jim Tedder, R-Clarkson, would change the requirement to 60 credits, and make it so the credits could be from a college, university or community college, and not all 60 hours would have to be from the same school. The bill passed the House earlier this month with a 64-45 vote.

“The regulations Michigan has in place right now do not work for students or local districts,” Tedder said. “This legislation will go a long way toward filling classrooms with substitute teachers, even if just for a day, and giving students the education they deserve.”

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