STANTON – From the public sector to the private sector, it’s no secret that since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, employers have struggled to find reliable, skilled workers to keep the world moving.
However, one sector may have a harder time finding these skilled workers than most – special education.
During the Nov. 17 meeting of the Montcalm Intermediate School District Board of Education, Assistant Superintendent of Special Education Daniel Brant presented a sobering perspective on the current status of special education teachers, not just across MAISD, but across all rural Michigan school districts.
While a variety of employers in different sectors have addressed a lack of interest or qualified applicants for employment by raising wages or lowering requirement levels, Brant said MAISD is unable to take such action.
To address the statewide shortage of general education jobs, Brant said the state has enacted a number of policies to address critical bottlenecks, such as: However, he said MAISD is unable to capitalize on such opportunities.
“Every district has had talks about things like the Grow Your Own grants. It’s a great policy and we support it,” he said. “We have current employees who may want to improve on their current training. If a bus driver wants to become a teacher, we can support them with scholarships and tuition reimbursement. The problem is we don’t have the people to grow.”
Brant said that because hiring new employees is difficult across the employment spectrum at MAISD, there is no room to move employees from one career path to another to fill gaps, as this creates another gap to be filled.
“If we promote that bus driver, I don’t have anyone to fill that spot as the new bus driver, or I don’t have a place to replace that para-pro,” he said. “We simply don’t have enough pools for that, especially in rural areas. And that’s not just the case in Montcalm County. Every single school district in Montcalm County… They’re dealing with bottlenecks. We all try to fight for the same people. It’s a very difficult place because we need certified staff and there just aren’t any certified staff.”
Additionally, Brant said middle school districts across the state struggle with such initiatives because they often bar special education certifications.
“School social workers, school psychologists and speech therapists, that whole group isn’t included because Grow Your Own grants are specific to teachers,” he said. “If the state continues to focus on Grow Your Own, we will continue to have a gap. You can’t get a bus driver or para-pro certified that quickly. We are in a crisis right now and we will continue to be in a crisis until we can get more people into the education system.”
While the state has taken measures to make it easier for people to become substitute general education teachers, Brant said those measures don’t apply to special education positions.
“There’s an asterisk down there — that doesn’t apply to special school,” he said. “Why don’t many waivers apply through special schools? Because this certification comes from the federal government. No state rule can replace the federal rule. We have exceptions to address this. The problem is that you still need to have a teaching certificate to get the exemption.
Additionally, Brant said while new qualified and certified special education positions typically come through state colleges and universities as new graduates, those numbers also appear to be declining.
Speaking to a colleague at Grand Valley State University, Brant said the prognosis of incoming graduates was nothing to celebrate.
“If you talk to our colleges, it doesn’t look good,” he said. “At GVSU they only graduated 13 special education teachers last year. Three to five years ago, their teacher certification programs completed 200 people. Of those 200, 50 may have been special education teachers. To hear that only a handful are completing these programs now does not look good.”
MAISD Board Trustee Susan Sunden, who works as an associate professor in GVSU’s recreational therapy program, shared a similar conclusion.
“Our numbers are down in all majors in health and education,” she said. “In my therapy area, we usually have a junior class of 40 students. Right now we have 23. “I also think it’s the tuition. People choose not to go to college when there are good paying jobs in the community without that kind of education.”
Board Vice President Mark Christensen asked if the success of the private sector was making it harder for MAISD to find qualified candidates.
“Is this really a situation, a challenge, where the private sector is paying significantly more for similar or similar jobs that these potential candidates are stealing?” he’s asked.
Brant said that factor is only part of the equation.
“One of them is that the private sector pays well – people who have been in education don’t find it difficult to drop out of education,” he said. “Also, the public education dialogue hasn’t been very good in recent years given the legislative move towards charter schools and charter school vouchers. The news doesn’t choose to tell good stories for education. What do you choose? The stories that will grab your attention, that will make you feel. So it’s a struggle for people to look at public education as a go-to (for employment).”
When all factors are added together, Brant said, the bottom line is an issue centered on the morale of teachers and staff in public school districts.
“The state also changed retirement for education,” he said. “When people go into education, firstly we do it because we love children and want to work hard for those students, but secondly it’s a job and we want to be paid well and to be taken care of when we’re away. Pay has stayed relatively the same over time, and of course there have been increases, but we haven’t kept up with the private sector.
“With pensions and insurance, it used to be that if you put 30 years into education, you could have a great retirement,” he continued. “Now the legislature has changed that. There is a higher level of control over teachers in terms of tests and teacher evaluations. It changed the morale of what education looks like and now people don’t want to dwell on it. Instead, you can go into better-paying jobs like medicine, engineering, or jobs like electricians.”
While MAISD Superintendent Kyle Hamlin didn’t go so far as to say that the private sector is stealing jobs from the public sector, he recognized that there was a shortage of skilled workers.
“I’m thinking of my son who works on a freighter,” he said. “They’re hiring people right now who will jump on a boat and make $80,000. Yes, you have to be away for 45 to 90 days, but even in a private sector with good money and pay, there are no candidates for these jobs either. I think there is simply a lack of employees overall.”
Hamlin also agreed with Brant that school districts were being forced to hire staff from other nearby school districts.
“We just hired a homeless student liaison position. The person was on site, they worked a week but then applied for another job and got hired by Lakeview (community schools) after a week,” he said. “Then we just hired someone from Lakeview yesterday. So we swap people. It’s like a trade you might see in sports – I’ll trade you an advisor for a teacher. We didn’t have that years ago. We didn’t take the staff like we’re doing now. That’s because there just aren’t enough candidates. That’s the most of what’s happening right now.”
In seeking an answer to the “critical” flaws in special education, Brant expressed no optimism.
“Every advocacy group I know, as well as administrators, are largely committed to relaxing special education,” he said. “However, I don’t think special education is on the Legislature’s radar. I think the legislators care about all the job openings and the whole economy of the state. If you think about the economy as a whole, every single sector needs human resources.”