There’s no doubt that teachers are an essential part of the Michigan public school system, but as the shortage of substitute teachers worsens, having experienced teachers in the classroom is becoming even more vital.
Jeffrey Thoenes, superintendent of Comstock Public Schools near Kalamazoo, says finding enough substitutes to fill classrooms can be an everyday struggle.
Comstock Schools is a rural district with a majority of students who are low-income, according to data from the Michigan Department of Education. But Thoenes says this is a statewide issue affecting all of Michigan’s schools.
A study by Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research shows that 64% of school district administrators in Michigan report that they are unable to find enough substitutes multiple times a week.
While it’s not a new issue, according to the MSU study, the shortage is a growing problem in Michigan. Using data provided by Edustaff, the state’s largest third-party provider (TPP) of substitute teachers, in 2012, the substitute fill rate was at 95%. That decreased to 85% by 2016.
This issue puts a greater strain on districts as they try to place a qualified individual in a classroom full of students. For many schools, this means pulling teachers from planning periods, putting administrative staff into the classroom, or combining classrooms under a single teacher in more desperate situations.
Thoenes says this is an issue the district is working hard to address.
He says the lack of substitute teachers is just a symptom of a larger systemic problem of defunding education at the state level. After 33 years as an educator, Thoenes remembered when districts hired substitute teachers.
But now, as funding cuts dig deeper into the budgets, schools are pressured to outsource many positions to avoid cutting full-time staff or limit educational opportunities for students.
“Subbing used to be a pretty attractive position,” Thoenes said. “But as a result of cuts, districts aren’t doing the hiring; they don’t have a connection with the subs and they can’t build the same relationship.”
To ensure that students are still being served when there isn’t a substitute to take over a class, Comstock schools is working to finalize a contract with teachers to make sure there is payment for volunteered prep hours. The district is offering $37 an hour to teachers who sub during those times.
According to Edustaff, substitute teachers hired through the company can make $90 or more a day depending on the district. If a substitute works for six class periods, that breaks down to $15 an hour.
Thoenes recognizes that this is a more expensive alternative for the district, but says when there is no other option, the district would “rather have a qualified person who knows the students and schools.”
In response to vacant teacher positions and a substitute shortage, the Michigan Legislature enacted two laws in 2018 to lower qualification standards.
One lowered the minimum educational qualification for substitutes from 90 to 60 college or university credit hours. The other continued to allow districts to employ qualified retirees without losing retirement benefits. Although, substitutes hired through third-party providers, like Edustaff, are still at risk of losing their benefits.
Thoenes calls these “bandaid approaches” to a larger educational funding issue.
“It was a cheap fix to a systemic problem created by the legislature when they defunded schools,” he said.
After working in four different districts in Michigan, varying in economic status, location and population, Thoenes says the difficulties finding qualified substitutes exists everywhere to some degree.
But in his experience, more challenging districts struggle to find people prepared for the work and in rural areas, districts have a greater challenge with a smaller pool of applicants.
The MSU study showed that regardless of locale, every type of school district indicated vacancies, but the survey of administrators was most severe in cities, districts with high populations of students of color and high-poverty areas. Sixty-three percent of school administrators in cities, 82% in high minority districts and 60% in high-poverty districts reported never having a sufficient number of substitutes.
“For a more challenging population, and that doesn’t mean the students don’t deserve to learn. But for a non-educator who doesn’t know how to handle it, or they are trying to learn how, it will be challenging,” he said.
From the study, it’s clear there is both a supply and demand issue for substitute teachers in Michigan.
“There are different reasons for each district,” Thoenes said. “For each area, the reason why they might have a shortage may be different, but it doesn’t mean it’s not real.”