Michigan bill would reduce qualifications needed for some to substitute teach

A teacher writes on a dry-erase board in a classroom. Math equations are written on the board to her left. Above the board are posters of Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and the cast of the movie Hidden Figures.
State lawmakers are considering allowing school support staff to substitute teach as long as they graduated high school or have equivalency certificates. (Anthony Lanzilote for Chalkbeat)

Secretaries, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers soon could teach classes in Michigan K-12 schools even if they don’t have a single college credit.

The state Senate is considering a bill temporarily allowing school support staff to substitute teach as long as they graduated high school or have equivalency certificates. That’s a switch from the current policy that requires an associate degree, 60 college credits, or, in the case of career and technical courses, subject-matter expertise. Substitute teachers who are not staff members would still have to meet those requirements.

The legislation passed the House in July on partisan voting lines and could come to a vote Tuesday in the Senate Committee on Education and Career Readiness. The state Department of Education opposes the legislation, spokesman Bill DiSessa said. A spokesman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did not respond to a question about whether she would sign the legislation if it passes.

Sponsored by Republican state Reps. Brad Paquette of Niles and John Damoose of Harbor Springs, the effort is meant to alleviate pandemic-related strain on school districts through the end of this school year.

Districts have long struggled to find enough substitute teachers, but the problem worsened during the pandemic when many teachers retired and those who remain are sometimes forced to quarantine because of coronavirus exposure. The nationwide problem has forced temporary school closures and prompted pay hikes to attract substitutes. Before the pandemic, substitute teachers in Michigan were typically paid $80 to $85 a day but some districts are now offering much more.  

“What I think is most important for someone in the classroom is to know the kid’s name, to know the school, to care about the school, and have a reputation in the community,” Paquette testified last week before the Senate committee. “Staff who are already in the school system have already proven that they care about kids. They want to be around kids, and they have that passion for kids.”

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said the proposal might help the substitute shortage but would put pressure on other understaffed areas such as cafeterias,  transportation departments, and paraprofessional staff that help students with disabilities.

 “You’re just kind of playing musical chairs with critical school system employees. I’m wondering if that’s even workable,” said Polehanki of Livonia.

Currently, Whitehall District Schools typically needs six to eight substitutes per day but usually has only two to four available, Superintendent Jerry McDowell said. When there aren’t enough, principals, guidance counselors and other certified educators usually rotate in and out of a classroom throughout the day, magnifying the disruption and inhibiting consistency for children in the 2,000-student district north of Muskegon.

Several bus drivers and library assistants are willing to step in if the Legislature allows, McDowell said in a telephone interview.

“They’ve spent most of their lives working for Whitehall District Schools’ children and staff members,” he said. “They already have a relationship with them. They know our emergency routines, they know how to respond if things go a little astray, and they know the principal and school secretary by first name.”

Sen. Erica Geiss, a Taylor Democrat, agrees it makes sense to hire substitutes that already have a rapport with students and a knowledge of the school but has concerns about the quality of education they might provide.

“Is this envisioned as being basically babysitting or child-sitting for a class of 30 or 36 students when the focus is really supposed to be doing the education that we as parents send our kids to school to receive?” she asked.

“My concern is that we’ve already had a year of learning loss for a variety of reasons related to the pandemic,” said Geiss, who is a former educator. “Yes, we need to shore up the holes in our substitute teaching force, but how are we ensuring that the students are getting the information they need in order to continue moving forward in their various classes and coursework?”

Paquette, a former public school educator, said the quality would depend more on the classroom teacher’s preparation than on whether the substitute had college coursework.

It’s mostly a matter of “how much the teacher is willing to put in for their sub plans to make learning happen that day,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but it comes down to how much that teacher is going to be invested, and how much they know that substitute teacher and what they’re capable of.”

There’s nothing to stop principals from choosing substitutes who have more education than the bill requires, Paquette said. “If they have an option of choosing someone better, that’s something they’re going to do,” he said.

Education advocacy groups are divided over the legislation.

It’s not ideal, but it’s a solution that can be implemented quickly, testified Chris Glass of the Education Associates of West Michigan, which represents 43 school districts.

School employees in non-teaching positions see the strain on educators who are giving up preparatory periods or taking on additional students to cover for co-workers’ absences, Glass said. They want to help alleviate it, and this bill will help, he said.

Other proponents of the bill include other Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators and the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school advocacy group.

“We desperately need a solution — an immediate one — to the challenges that we are facing,” Glass told the Senate committee last week.

Opponents — including the state’s largest teachers’ unions— agree on that, but they say they don’t want unqualified people teaching students.

The Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals opposes the legislation and has a plan of its own to help when teachers are quarantined at home. The association wants the state to allow adults who are not certified teachers to manage classroom behavior while the quarantined classroom teacher provides remote instruction from home.

“Such an arrangement would provide much-needed relief. It would also clearly differentiate between someone who’s leading instruction and someone who is just facilitating the classroom environment,” said Bob Kefgen, the association’s lobbyist.  

Geiss weighed the urgent need for substitutes against the need for higher quality instruction by substitutes with college experience. She bristled when Paquette, a former public school teacher, called the 60-credit requirement arbitrary and unnecessary.

“We need to figure out a way to ensure we are addressing this critical need but also not sacrificing our kids’ education at the same time,” Geiss said.

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