Susan J. Demas
Cafeteria workers, secretaries and bus drivers could serve as substitute teachers in their district under legislation that awaits a decision from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The legislation would allow school districts to temporarily use school support staff to fill in as substitutes without any college credits. The law applies to support staff already working in a district, effective through June 30, 2022.
It’s billed as a temporary fix to help school districts deal with a substitute teacher shortage and other pandemic-related stress, including COVID outbreaks, classroom behavior issues and more recently real and false threats of school violence.
“They are closing down schools because they don’t have enough subs,” bill sponsor state Rep. Brad Paquette (R-Niles) told the Advance. “We need to figure out how to get all hands on deck and open the door to people who want to be in the classroom.”
But most Democrats and some educational groups oppose the measures. Their biggest concerns relate to long-term substitute situations and how support employees would juggle their current job and substitute teaching.
The main bill is House Bill 4294, sponsored by Parquette. It’s linked to House Bill 4293, sponsored by Rep. John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs), which prohibits collective bargaining from including decisions on substitute teacher employment. HB 4293 so far has only passed the House back in May and the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee on Dec. 7.
Meanwhile, House Bill 4294 passed the Senate last week along party lines, 23-13, after getting approved in committee. The House of Representatives already approved a different version of the bill in July but had to vote again because of a technical change made last week in the Senate. The House voted 55-48.
Paquette, a former public schoolteacher, said he got his start in education without being a certified teacher. He was a traveling Spanish teacher and had to jump through hoops and earn a master’s degree.
“We have all these folks get put through all these hoops and college courses and they could be filling in as a guest teacher,” Paquette said.
His bill waives the 60-hour college credit requirement for support staff members who want to substitute teach in their district. They would only need only a high school diploma or equivalency certificate.
Currently, substitute teachers must have an associate’s degree, 60 college credits, or subject-matter expertise for career and technical courses. Substitutes who are not school staff members would still have to meet those requirements.
Paquette argues 60 credits of college doesn’t prepare people to be better substitute teachers. He believes support staff members who know the building, students, teachers, and emergency protocols are equally equipped to fill in for a day or two.
“I’ve asked people opposed to the legislation, ‘in your 60 college credits, what course helps you become a better substitute teacher,’” Paquette said. “You’re there to try and help facilitate the day.”
Support staff wouldn’t be required to sub. Those who step into the classroom would be paid their normal hourly rate if it’s more than the daily substitute rate. Those who normally earn less than substitutes would receive the higher rate.
In some cases, it’s a matter of needing a substitute to fill in on certain days or for specific periods, said Jerry McDowell, superintendent of Whitehall District Schools in Muskegon County.
“The reason it’s important is they’re already working in the district,” McDowell told the Advance. “These are media specialists or people who drive a school bus. They know the kids. They have been vetted; they know our safety procedures and they are high-quality individuals.”
McDowell said several bus drivers and library assistants have expressed interest in subbing if the law passes. Bus drivers could help out between their morning and afternoon routes.
The reason it’s important is they’re already working in the district. These are media specialists or people who drive a school bus. They know the kids. They have been vetted; they know our safety procedures and they are high-quality individuals.
– Jerry McDowell, superintendent of Whitehall District Schools
Often, a bus driver or other school employee is better equipped to manage students than a new substitute from outside the district. It’s also beneficial from a safety and security perspective, McDowell said.
“They already work in our system and have done so for years and years,” McDowell said. “If we can place them into the classroom, it helps because they have the relationship and the respect. It avoids disrupting an entire school system by having classrooms without subs.”
The current substitute shortage has gotten so bad that principals, guidance counselors, social workers and other certified educators fill in where and when a class is without supervision. Teachers are giving up their prep hours to cover for absent co-workers, often in a subject they aren’t trained in.
By using support staff in the classroom as needed, it helps prevent crisis situations and closures.
“We’re not asking people to teach fourth grade for a school year,” McDowell said. “We’re asking them to come and interact with young people and work through a lesson plan for a day.”
Proponents of the bill include the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators (MASA) and the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school advocacy group.
Both the state Department of Education and the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, oppose the legislation.
Democratic senators have expressed concern over the quality of instruction, especially if a long-term substitute is needed.
Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), also a former educator, said it makes sense to use school employees who already have a rapport and trust with students for a day or two. But the bigger issue relates to how much learning is really taking place, especially after a year of disrupted instruction.
“We have these situations now where, yes we need to shore up the holes in our substitute teaching force, but how are we ensuring the students are actually getting the information that they need in order to continue moving forward in their various classes and coursework?” Geiss said during a Dec. 7 Senate committee hearing.
Several senators and Paquette offered their own insights on previous experiences with substitute teaching. Most didn’t have subject matter expertise.
“With 60 college credits, that does nothing to prepare you for, like a calculus class,” Paquette said during the hearing. “I’ve been thrown into plenty of classrooms that I didn’t know the content, and I depended on the kids and I depended on the lesson plans that were left for me.”
Paquette said it comes down to how much the teacher wants to invest in developing a lesson plan to make learning happen that day, as well as knowing the capabilities of the substitute and their engagement with students.
“The most valuable part of learning is not necessarily having an authority figure in the classroom who knows it all,” Paquette said. “It’s someone who comes alongside the kid and is able to ask a question alongside them and learn with them. And I think a lot of our staff who are already in the school systems have already proven that they care about kids. They want to be around kids. And they have that passion for kids.”
Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), the minority vice chair who’s also a former teacher, repeatedly questioned how many support staff members would even be available to fill in as subs. Pulling support staff from their contractual duties would create staffing shortages in other areas or cause them to fall behind in their jobs.
“You’re just kind of playing musical chairs with critical school employees,” she said during the hearing. “I’m just wondering if this is really even workable.”
You’re just kind of playing musical chairs with critical school employees. I’m just wondering if this is really even workable.
– State Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia)
Polehanki noted the ongoing bus driver shortage and that paraprofessionals often follow students with disabilities.
“I can’t see who this is for and if it’s going to be a huge help,” she said.
The Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals opposes the legislation, mainly because it doesn’t address long-term substitute teacher assignments. Subs can fill in for up to 90 days and another 90 days with an extension. In addition, the bill doesn’t differentiate between an adult who is qualified to act as a classroom supervisor and a teacher.
“We have a school staffing crisis, make no mistake, and we need relief,” Bob Kefgen, the association’s associate director of government relations, said during the Dec. 7 hearing. “And we need teachers, but we have to be careful about confusing relief and teaching.”
The MASSP does not object to support staff serving in a short-term capacity, Kefgen said. The association proposed creating a classroom supervisor permit instead of a substitute teacher permit for qualified adults to manage the classroom while the quarantined classroom teacher provides remote instruction from home.
However, lawmakers countered that Paquette said this bill was for short-term substitutes and school administrators typically decide which substitutes are qualified for longer assignments.
“Your people [principals] would be responsible to make the determination, ‘You’re not going to stay in here for 90 days or 180 days because you’re not a certified teacher,’” said Sen. Kevin Daley (R-Lum). “And they shouldn’t be, I agree with that.”
Chris Glass of Education Associates of West Michigan, which represents 43 school districts in West Michigan, also testified at the hearing and said it’s not ideal but districts are facing desperate situations.
“We’re in a crisis state; we’ve been in a crisis state,” Glass said. “When you talk to superintendents on a one-on-one basis, it is triage within schools.”
Employees in support roles see the stress educators are under and want to help if they can. This bill would open the door to a new pool of people, who, in many cases, are “better equipped than those who do have those 60 credit hours.”
“Nobody wants to abuse this because they know it’s going to exacerbate shortages in other positions and people are going to move districts,” Glass added. “It could be a tool that some could utilize if it could fit their needs.”
Daley, whose wife recently retired as a school teacher, asked Glass’ opinion on the legislation: “In your opinion, to me, this is a common sense issue. This is one more tool in the tool box to help for the next six months, for the schools to see if it works and to see if they can make it work? Would you agree with that?”
Glass said allowing support staff to fill in as subs is one way to help alleviate the strain on both teachers and administrators and keep schools open. He called it “simple, short-term common sense help.”
“We’re not talking about ideal solutions,” Glass said. “We’re really talking about patchwork options to keep these districts and these buildings open to serve kids.”
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