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Sen. Knollenberg shocked by Michigan's teacher shortage. Let me explain what happened.

Nov 2, 2017

State Senator Marty Knollenberg of Troy doesn’t have a reputation as a great humorist in politics. He’s not the Al Franken of the Michigan Senate, shall we say.

But he actually made me laugh out loud this week. The Michigan Department of Education reported that we are now facing a teacher shortage.

There are more than 5,000 fewer certified teachers in Michigan than there were in 2004, and the number of newly certified ones last year was barely a third of what it once was.

Knollenberg professed to be shocked, absolutely shocked by this.

“Why hasn’t this been addressed?” he asked. “Who is responsible? It certainly isn’t coming from lawmakers.”

Well, senator, permit me to explain.

You are, indeed, responsible. You and your colleagues, mostly Republicans, like yourself.

You have spent the last seven years attacking teachers and cutting their salaries and benefits and pensions. The Michigan Department of Education reported last year that the average teacher salary in our state declined for the fifth straight year.

(For more on teacher pay in Michigan, see our web series on the subject.)

David Crim, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, told me that many destructive things have led to our teacher shortage, beginning with Governor Snyder and the Legislature cutting a billion dollars from the elementary and secondary education budget seven years ago to give businesses a massive tax cut.

Additionally, Knollenberg’s colleagues passed a law five years ago that allows districts to choose not to move teachers up on the salary schedule every year. Traditionally, beginning teachers weren’t paid very much, but knew that if they performed well, they’d get a little more annually until they reached something like a middle-class lifestyle.

Now, many haven’t had a raise in five years. Actually, again according to the MEA, the state’s largest teachers’ union, many teachers are actually making less, thanks to another law forcing them to pay more of their health care coverage.

New teachers usually graduate with tens of thousands in student loan debt, unlike the baby boomers, whose education was largely paid for by the government.

On top of this, teachers have had to cope with constant attacks aimed at destroying what’s left of their pensions, which have already been whittled down.

Senate Majority leader Arlan Meekhof has been attempting to force teachers into a 401(k) only plan, and has said that if they leave the profession after only a few years, that’s fine with him.

Far too many Michigan lawmakers have the interesting attitude that we can treat the educated professionals we entrust with our children’s minds and futures with somewhat less respect than we show government clerks and plumbers.

Then there are the efforts by lawmakers at weakening public education in favor of charter schools, many operated by for-profit companies that can donate to their campaigns. Throw in the current ideology that instead of producing well-educated people, we should force our educators to “teach to the test,” a sterile philosophy that also, based on the results, isn’t working.

So Senator Knollenberg, the answer to the teacher shortage is that the Legislature you are part of is indeed responsible. It isn't shocking that more than 100,000 Michiganders with a valid teaching certificate are no longer working in the profession.

What’s shocking is that any young people still become teachers after what all of you have done.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.