News Story

Where's Teacher Shortage School Districts Claim?

Some specialized positions hard to fill, but some openings get hundreds of applicants

For several years public school administrators and teacher unions assisted by voices in the mainstream media have promoted the idea that education reforms enacted under a Republican governor and legislature in recent years, plus low pay, has created a statewide teacher shortage.

One example of the media’s role was a “Teacher Shortage” report broadcast by WXYZ-TV in 2015. Another was in the May 27, 2017 Detroit Free Press, when columnist Nancy Kaffer wrote: “There's a teacher shortage in Michigan, and it's going to get worse.”

However, school district responses to Freedom of Information Act requests submitted over several years suggest that schools do not have problem attracting qualified applicants for teaching jobs.

Important to this story is the fact that enrollment in Michigan public schools has been falling for some time, and with it the demand for teachers. Schools districts employed 98,608 full time teachers in the 2012-13 school year. In the just-concluded 2016-17 school year the number was down to 95,000.

Michigan Capitol Confidential has sent Freedom of Information Act requests to several school districts to get information on the number of applicants for open teacher positions.

The first district reviewed is Dearborn Public Schools, which employs 1,368 teachers. In the past year, Dearborn had 102 teacher openings for which 3,902 individuals applied. That’s an average 38 applicants per position. Five of the positions had one or no applicants.

But David Mustonen, a spokesman for Dearborn Public Schools, said the application process is more involved than just listing the number of applicants for each job posted.

“That search might give us 30 potential people but when we check into their qualifications that might narrow it down to 20 and then we may only interview the top 5 or 6,” Mustonen said in an email.

The school district said the number of applicants per position was misleading. (Click here to see the entire email.)

Dearborn Public Schools said it uses an online application system that is shared with a consortium of schools districts and charters that work together and share an application process.

"We are very pleased with the ability of the system to recruit candidates and compile pools of candidates for a particular position. This certainly helps with combating the teacher shortage and was a major factor in joining the consortium," the district stated in an email. "We are still experiencing a shortage of quality candidates for specific positions."

The district gave some examples of how the application system works.

They posted a position in 2017-18 for an elementary school teacher. It received 381 applicants and the district said it will probably hire 50-70 elementary school teachers.

"Those same 381 applicants likely are applying for posting throughout Wayne County and the state," the email stated.

The district posted openings for high school and middle school positions and received 178 applicants and will likely hire 50-60 secondary school teachers. Some of those 178 applicants could have applied to multiple positions within the district, in effect being double-counted in the total number of applicants.

Dearborn Public Schools said it is facing teacher shortages, such as some specific special education classifications as well as teachers for English as a second language.

"In many urban areas we need teachers certified to teach students that speak a language other than English as their primary language at home," the district's email stated. "Because of the shortage, Dearborn has to get a state permit to allow staff to teach outside their certification. We hire staff willing to obtain the endorsement and allow them to take classes over their first 4 years."

Mustonen said there was a growing teaching shortage.

“It is getting harder and harder to find teachers, especially in some of the specialty areas such as Special Education and the science's,” he said.

Defining “teacher shortage” may hinge on determining how many applications for an opening is considered good.

"Having an average of about 30 potential employees for each open position does not suggest there's a widespread teacher shortage problem,” said Michael Van Beek, director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “And even if there are shortages for certain types of teachers, it's important to remember this is a problem school districts create for themselves by refusing to pay more to teachers in high demand subjects."

Almost all the conventional public school districts use a union-negotiated pay scale that compensates teachers based only on years of service and the number of college credit hours earned.

However, at least one school district believes that system is too restrictive.

The Holly Area School Districts teachers’ contract, for example, allows a superintendent to start a newly hired teacher in a “difficult-to-fill” slot at the pay rate that the union contract prescribes for someone who has more seniority.