In the fall of 2017, Detroit Public Schools Community District started the school year with about 300 teacher openings, forcing building principals to fill those classrooms with substitute teachers.
This year, only a small number of teaching positions for the fall remain open in the state’s largest school district with more than two months before classrooms reopen.
While schools across Michigan are facing a growing and potentially debilitating teacher shortage, Detroit has been able to pick and choose from more than 1,000 applicants for 140 positions so far this year.
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How did Detroit do it?
By opening up its checkbook.
The district boosted starting salaries by 33 percent, from $38,000 in 2017 to more than $51,000 in the fall. It offered $3,000 in hazard pay to work during the pandemic, and is now offering $15,000 annual recurring bonuses for teachers in hard-to-fill areas such as special education.
State officials are scrambling to develop strategies to attract and retain educators in Michigan classrooms, ranging from high school programs to boost career interest in education, to building alternative, quick training programs to become teachers.
Detroit’s success, however, raises the question of whether the teacher shortage could be eliminated by simply making the profession more financially attractive.
That solution is more theoretical than feasible in many Michigan schools, which are facing a double whammy: Teachers are quitting at higher rates than normal following the pressures of teaching during a pandemic, at the same time that fewer college students are majoring in education as a future career.
Those pressures face Detroit’s Public Schools Community District as well, but the district said it’s been deliberate in setting aside funds to offer competitive teaching salaries in recent years as it continues to recover from state emergency oversight.
Another point of optimism is a flood of federal COVID relief cash, which has been concentrated in cities and districts with high levels of poverty, such as Detroit, to help schools reopen and to allow students to catch up from learning loss during the pandemic.
Though DPSCD spokesperson Chrystal Wilson noted Monday that “the District will not use one-time Federal Relief Funds to pay salaries.”
Some school districts, particularly in rural northern communities and urban areas like Detroit, have struggled with teacher shortages for years. Today, no region of the state is immune, with many districts even turning to uncertified teachers to teach subjects they were never trained in.
Teacher shortages matter in Michigan, where student academic performance is already average to below average compared to other states. Michigan is also below the national average in the percentage of adults with a college degree — which hampers average worker earnings and state efforts to attract businesses to move here.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has made increasing college enrollment and degree attainment a major goal of her administration, and she has acknowledged that a key to reaching that goal is improving educational outcomes in the state’s public K-12 schools.
Teacher shortages have a domino effect in schools, with educators sometimes teaching classes that are outside their specialty, and classrooms being led by substitute teachers with little or no education background.
State officials are looking for ways to make it easier and more lucrative to become a teacher. In May, the Michigan Department of Education launched a program to lure former teachers back to the profession by waiving the requirement of 150 hours of recertification classes to rejoin classrooms. About 1,200 former teachers signed up in the program’s first three weeks.
State Superintendent Michael Rice told Bridge Michigan at the time he would like to see starting teacher pay increased as a way to lure college students into the profession. While Michigan’s average teacher salary is higher than the national average, starting teacher pay in the state ranks 41st in the nation, according to the National Education Association teacher union.
Also in May, Whitmer proposed several financial incentives to recruit and maintain educators, including student loan forgiveness.
Detroit appears to be proof that financial incentives can work.
Starting salary for teachers straight out of college is now $51,000 in the district, which is above the average salary of teachers with five years of experience in more than half the districts in the country, said Wilson, DPSCD spokesperson.
Special education teachers are set to receive a $15,000 bonus annually, Wilson said.
Detroit schools Supt. Nikolai Vitti tweeted Friday that “the days of saying teachers do not want to work in DPSCD are over!”
Roughly 100 of the district’s 140 teacher openings have now been filled, said Wilson, adding, “We’re close, but we’re not there yet.”
Wilson said the district felt the urgency to bring in new educators even before COVID-19 hit.
“We know that 50 percent of our teachers in the next few years will be eligible for retirement,” she said. “It’s better to be proactive (in recruiting new teachers) than reactive.
“In 2017, we were where the rest of the state is now” with teacher shortages, Wilson said. “We were able to look down the road and be proactive.”
Those financial incentives could pay off long-term. A decade-old Stanford study found that increasing pay not only attracts more teachers, but also higher-quality teachers.
Still, without a big influx of cash from state or federal sources, raising pay is more complicated for most districts, said Robert McCann, executive director of the school advocacy group the K-12 Alliance of Michigan.
“I’m happy for Detroit, but that’s not something a lot of districts are going to be able to do,” McCann said. He noted that many districts may have to delay hiring new teachers for the fall until the governor and legislature finalize the state K-12 budget.
Federal COVID relief funds for schools were distributed using the same formula used for Title I funds meant to aid low-income students. The formula also is weighted toward larger districts.
For example, students in low-income Benton Harbor Public Schools got 172 times more federal COVID relief than students in affluent Northville. Hamtramck Public Schools, with its racially diverse enrollment, receive more than $10,000 per student in aid, while the 93-percent-white Brighton Area Schools gets less than $200 per student.
Detroit received or is scheduled to receive more than $18,000 per student in federal COVID relief funding.
By law, the state is supposed to finalize the K-12 budget by the end of June, so that schools, which run on a July-to-June budget, have enough time to determine how many staff members they can hire for the fall. McCann said school officials are increasingly worried that the state will not meet that deadline.
If the state K-12 budget isn’t completed until August, “the hiring pool will be pretty shallow by then,” McCann said. “Every day they delay is making this job that much more difficult for superintendents.”