In recent days, rising COVID-19 cases mixed with staffing shortages have forced many school districts to switch to virtual instruction or cancel classes. It’s a numbers game when there aren’t enough adults to safely have students in school.
The pandemic has exacerbated Michigan’s acute educator shortage. The heightened stress, crushing additional workloads, and destructive political atmosphere have brought a dangerous tipping point – accelerating a crisis we’ve warned of for years.
Together, we can fix this critical issue and secure a bright future for Michigan students. It begins with immediate, concerted, and long-term action from lawmakers.
Stopgap measures – like allowing support staff to be substitute teachers for the rest of this school year – are not the answer. MEA opposed that recent legislation because it doesn’t put students or school employees in a position to succeed, nor does it address the lack of compensation and respect for professional educators that are driving this shortage.
In signing that temporary measure, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rightly called for the Legislature to work on long-lasting solutions. As a state, we must take steps to recruit new educators and retain the dedicated ones we currently have.
First, lowering the financial barriers for entering the profession will help aspiring educators realize their dream. Federal COVID-relief funds can be used to establish the Michigan Future Educator Fellowship proposed by Launch Michigan, a coalition of education, business, labor and philanthropic leaders.
This game-changing workforce investment would provide qualified education students with a $7,500 annual scholarship at a four-year Michigan university or other recognized institution, with continuing scholarships to help with tuition costs for student teachers. Recipients would be required to teach in Michigan for a minimum of five years after they complete their degrees – and that will benefit a generation of students, if not more.
More can also be done to support paraprofessionals and other school support staff who want to become teachers. “Grow your own” programs provide financial support for training so employees already dedicated to their schools and students can earn their teaching certificates.
This is one of the ideas State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice has asked legislators to support, along with stipends for student teachers, flexibility in recognizing teaching certificates from other states, and reinforcing our state’s excellent teacher prep programs.
Recruitment, however, is half the battle. In addition, we must retain the great educators we have – and that means fairly compensating them and respecting their professional expertise.
Thanks to this year’s historic investments in public education, we can begin to make up for years of stagnant school employee salaries.
Counteracting decades of disinvestment won’t happen overnight however. Both the state and individual districts can take more immediate financial steps to stem the educator exodus. Keeping shortages from getting worse allows time for longer-term solutions to take hold.
In addition to bolstering compensation, improving respect for the education profession is essential. That starts by replacing a punitive, top-down mindset toward policymaking with an approach that favors listening to, supporting, and empowering our front-line professionals.
This school year has been a huge challenge – navigating pandemic health requirements to keep everyone safe; helping students recover academically, socially, and emotionally; and now ensuring physical safety in the wake of the tragic shooting in Oxford and the copycat threats it spawned.
Educators should be celebrated for their dedication to student success and safety, not subjected to political attacks, second guessing, and efforts to undermine their professional expertise.
The time to act is now. We must come together at the local and state levels and across political divides to restore this most noble profession and ensure students get the education they deserve.
Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Ray Curry, Teamsters President James Hoffa and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.