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A new report out this week offers solutions from the people who understand the issue the best—the teachers.

Michigan teachers are fed up. They’re tired of the stagnating wages and funding cuts, which have led to a shortage in their workforce. 

They’re also over being left out of the state’s education policy decisions. That’s why they’ve decided to offer up some solutions of their own. 

A new report out this week includes their recommendations, such as the disbursement of financial incentives or recruiting bonuses to new teachers, greater input in policy making, and diversifying the workforce. 

“Policymakers and educators should work together closely to address Michigan’s educator talent crisis,” the report’s authors write. “What has been missing in past efforts to address growing educator staffing issues is the direct contribution of educators.”

The problem these teachers are trying to solve is a massive one. According to the latest federal data, the number of students enrolling in teacher preparation programs in Michigan has dropped by more than 71% since 2008. That is the second worst drop in the nation and one that has had devastating consequences for the state’s teacher pipeline.

If that’s not bad enough, one in five Michigan teachers are leaving the profession within five years, according to the Michigan Education Association (MEA), one of the state’s largest teacher’s unions. 

“We’ve seen this problem across the state for a number of years and it’s gotten to a crisis point,” David Crim, communications consultant for the MEA, told COURIER in a phone interview. 

The shortage has become so dire that more than 2,500 long-term substitutes were used across the state during the 2018-2019 school year, a tenfold increase in just five years, according to an analysis by Bridge Magazine.

The state’s teacher workforce is also far less diverse than its student body, as 91.6% of Michigan teachers were white in the 2016-2017 school year, compared to only 66.6% of students. 

The authors of the “Examining Michigan’s Education Workforce” report—which was sponsored by the MEA, fellow teachers union AFT Michigan, and the Middle Cities Education Association—surveyed 120 teachers during six focus groups across the state. The report includes their input on how to address these issues of teacher recruitment, teacher retention, and diversification of the workforce. 

Their policy recommendations were grouped into three basic categories—monetary solutions, non-monetary solutions, and solutions related to teacher preparation:

Monetary 

  • Incentives or recruiting bonuses for educators new to the profession or early in their careers
  • Equity-based funding for school districts
  • Hiring more support personnel

Non-monetary 

  • Greater educator input on working conditions and education reforms
  • Reducing the reliance on student standardized tests for evaluative purposes
  • Reducing barriers to and the cost of initial certification and re-certification

Teacher preparation 

  • Improving induction and mentoring programs for early-career educators
  • Paid internships for aspiring educators
  • Diversifying the experiences for aspiring educators

Educators also called for debt relief for their student loans in exchange for time commitments, the creation of long-term paid apprenticeships for aspiring educators, and establishing specific recruitment efforts in diverse communities. 

They also asked for better pay, especially for new and early-career teachers. While the state’s average teacher salary ($61,911) ranks 13th in the nation, the average starting salary is just $36,599 per year, which is 33rd in the nation.

Teacher salaries in Michigan have also remained largely stagnant for the past decade, as many school districts instituted pay freezes and stopped giving new and early-career teachers annual salary increases. Together, the low starting salary and lack of reliable pay increases have made it difficult for new teachers, many of whom have student loans, to make a living while staying in the profession. 

“Education is a people-intensive profession, so when you starve the funding, it’s the staff that takes the hit.”

“For new teachers, the student loan burden has forced many of them out of the classroom. They cannot afford to pay rent, car payments, utilities, and cell phones and pay off their student loans, given the depressed salaries that we have here,” Crim said. “Many of these kids dream about being a teacher. They spend four years in the classroom and another year of student teaching to become a teacher, and that dream is gone in five years because the math doesn’t add up.”

Crim joined teachers in calling for higher starting salaries. “We don’t think it’s unreasonable that a first-year teacher be paid $40,000 a year. If this is an important job in terms of society and the future of our state, and any state, then $40,000 a year for a teacher to start is not unreasonable.”

Increasing teacher pay would require a substantial increase in education funding, which Crim also advocates for. He pointed to a 2019 Michigan State University study which found that Michigan ranks dead last in the nation in school funding growth since 1993. From 2002 to 2015 alone, the state’s total K-12 education funding declined by 30%, after adjusting for inflation. 

“There’s been a major attack on the profession, there’s been an attack on wages, on benefits, and on pensions,” he said. “Education is a people-intensive profession, so when you starve the funding, it’s the staff that takes the hit.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has tried to boost education funding during her time in office and her newly proposed budget would increase funding for schools by the largest amount in two decades. 

Her efforts have not yet come to fruition, due to resistance from the Republican-controlled state legislature. Crim praised Whitmer for her efforts, saying she has been “110% supportive” of MEA’s effort,  and expressed his own frustration with the state legislature’s reluctance to sufficiently increase funding.

“We’re very very concerned and we’ve done everything we can to push the legislature. I don’t want to make this a partisan issue, but the legislature is controlled by Republicans and they have been the leaders in cutting funding to public schools,” Crim said.

The time for action is now, according to Crim, who attended some of the focus groups.

“I went to all of these places and listened to the teachers,” he said. “And not once did I leave one of these sessions without tears in my eyes listening to the stories of these teachers who are really committed to their kids, but having a hard time staying in the profession.”