News Story

Teacher Shortage? For Physics Maybe, But Not Phys-Ed

Union pay restrictions prevent schools from filling some slots

The Citizens Research Council of Michigan said in a report released in February that there is no overall teacher shortage in Michigan, but it is hard for schools to find qualified applicants in some specific categories and subjects.

The report stated that positions in science and technology, special education, and English as a Second Language are among the most difficult to fill.

Michigan school districts are generally ill-equipped to attract qualified individuals to take jobs that require specialized or technical knowledge, due to the fixed salary schedules prescribed by union-negotiated teacher contracts.

This practice, the single salary schedule, prohibits school districts from paying more for teachers in hard-to-fill positions than they pay for those in the most popular classroom teacher jobs.

For example, one middle school physical education teacher in Grosse Pointe Public Schools gets a base salary of $91,892, while the base salary of a high school physics teacher in the same district is $57,892. Another science teacher in the district earns $52,835. The district has three physical education teachers with base salaries in excess of $90,000. The base pay for all these teachers, as is true in most cases of Michigan’s school districts, is set by the union contract’s single pay schedule, and based solely on a teacher’s seniority and academic credentials.

Increasingly, however, districts are finding ways around the restrictive union contracts.

Hanover-Horton School Superintendent John Denney said he has negotiated into the latest teachers contract the flexibility that allows him to pay some teachers more than what the contract stipulates. The school district can award up to seven years of service to a new hire effectively moving that first-year teacher several steps up the pay scale ladder and adding thousands of dollars to the starting salary.

At the district, a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree starts at a base salary of $39,545. At the seventh pay increase, called a “step” and prescribed by the union contract, that teacher would make $51,407. The district can also give a $1,000 signing bonus to new hires under a condition that they must pay it back if they leave within three years.

“A big part of the problem is the lockstep salary schedule that’s a standard feature of bargained teacher contracts,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “Local school leaders could pursue the flexibility to offer pay based on how hard it is to find a teacher in that subject area or to fill a specific job assignment, or increase pay more in line with their performance in the classroom. Instead they negotiate with unions a one-size-fits-all model that largely caps a teacher’s earnings by the middle of their career.”