In a Nutshell:
- Michigan public school employment is up three percent this year, after last year’s staffing contractions arising from the pandemic. Meanwhile, statewide student-staffing ratios continue to decline as student enrollments fall.
- Certain schools, and specific classrooms within those schools, are finding it increasingly difficult to provide staffing sufficient to meet their student needs.
- From the data and research reviewed, it is hard to see that there is a general, statewide school staffing crisis. Therefore, any policy intervention should be designed accordingly.
Governor Whitmer’s School Aid Fund supplemental spending request allocates $2.3 billion to various K-12 public education workforce recruitment and retention initiatives. It is, in her words, “the largest ever state effort to recruit and retain talent for the education workforce.” On this observation she is absolutely correct; previous state efforts to address public school staffing challenges were measured in the seven-figure dollar range. That is millions NOT billions.
But, does the massive scale of this proposed investment match the scope of the challenges from a statewide perspective?
Recently updated information on statewide public education staffing trends help to shed light on this question. While these broad trends alone can not provide the nuanced details to help identify, quantify, and explain many of the “on-the-ground” staffing challenges currently facing Michigan’s public schools, they are certainly relevant and help to inform the discussion on staffing challenges that are at the heart of the governor’s multi-billion dollar spending proposal.
After a Down Year, School Staffing is up in 2021-22
In the current school year (2021-22), Michigan public schools employ almost 350,000 people across a myriad of positions, from classroom teachers to paraprofessionals to food service. Staffing is up nearly 11,000 employees compared to last year, after the pandemic and the shift to remote and hybrid education models knocked down human capital needs in schools across the state. With the increase this year, the statewide staffing numbers are back to their pre-pandemic (2019-20) level.
Increases are seen across all staffing groups. The statewide teaching workforce, as measured by the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) positions, totals 100,636 teachers in 2021-22; an increase of nearly five percent over the 96,162 teachers employed in 2020-21.* For school staffing analyses, it is often best to use the FTE measure rather than “headcount” in order to account for part-time workers and the fact that some employees hold multiple assignments within the same school. Teachers account for 48 percent of the total 209,004 FTE staff employed in public schools.
Trends in Student-Staffing Ratios
To provide some context around the size of Michigan’s K-12 education workforce, as well as the observed increases this year, it is helpful to consider staffing levels relative to student enrollment. This is done by computing simple student-staffing ratios. These ratios are helpful in quantifying the amount of human capital available in schools to deliver services to students. This is particularly relevant for teaching staff. While the student-teacher ratio cannot tell us whether the number of teachers is sufficient to meet student needs, it does provide a useful measure of how the total number of teachers is changing proportionally to the number of students.
Changes in statewide student-staffing ratios cannot precisely diagnose labor shortages in any particular school district or position, but they do signal whether a state is facing challenges relative to educator workforce recruitment and retention more broadly. The chart below presents statewide student-to-staffing ratios for both teacher and non-teacher staffing since 2012-13.
10-Year Trend – Michigan Student-Staffing Ratios
Source: MI School Data; Student Enrollment Counts and Staffing Count
Before the well-documented student enrollment disruptions caused by the pandemic, the total number of students attending Michigan public schools was declining. Total K-12 enrollment declined from 1.57 million students in 2012-13 to 1.44 million students this year, an eight percent decrease. This trend, which dates back to the early 2000s, is largely a function of stagnant state population growth and demographic shifts. Despite the drop in student statewide enrollment over the recent 10-year period, the number of teaching staff increased two percent, from 98,608 FTEs in 2012-13 to 100,636 FTEs in 2021-22.
These two divergent trends show up in the student-teacher ratios presented in the chart above. At the start of the period, Michigan had one teacher for every 16 students enrolled; today it is 14.3 students per teacher. This decline occurred largely over the past five years as the number of teachers reported by the state has increased every year since 2016-17 against a backdrop of declining student enrollment. It should be noted that there was a small decline in the teacher workforce in 2020-21 due to the pandemic, but it was much smaller than the overall decline in student enrollment that year.
Similarly, the number of non-teaching staff working in Michigan schools has increased while statewide student enrollments fell. The chart above shows the student to non-teacher ratio fell from 16 in 2012-13 to 13.3 today. With the exception of the 2020-21 school year, the number of non-teaching staff has increased every year since 2015-16. Over the entire period, the non-teacher segment of the K-12 education workforce grew 10 percent or about five times as fast as the teacher segment.
One final take-away from the statewide trends presented here is the notable shift in the overall composition of the state’s K-12 education workforce. Specifically, because of the robust growth of the non-teacher segment, this grouping now represents 52 percent of the total FTE workforce compared to 50 percent 10 years prior. While the specific reasons behind this compositional shift go beyond the scope of the analysis here, it does suggest that growth in the K-12 workforce in recent years has skewed more towards non-teaching positions, including non-instructional and paraprofessional staff. We can’t say whether this is the result of expanding needs of some student populations or difficulty with recruiting and retaining teachers.
A Statewide Problem?
Back to the Governor’s massive spending proposal to address K-12 education staffing issues.
Of the total $2.3 billion being recommended, $1.5 billion is directed to employee bonuses that would be paid over four years to individuals that meet certain criteria. This proposal targets the retention side of the workforce equation by providing financial incentives to employees to remain working in their current school district. It is estimated that 200,000 FTE employees working in public schools would be eligible; teachers would be eligible for up to $11,000 per employee over the four years. In other words, nearly all of the 209,000 FTEs employed statewide this year.
To be sure, many schools across Michigan are finding it difficult to retain staff in certain positions. But this is not a new problem. Nor is it a statewide problem as the governor’s spending proposal suggests by providing bonuses to nearly every school employee in the state.
We have previously documented that certain school districts, notably those located in urban areas and many charter schools, are the most challenged when it comes to making sure schools are fully staffed to best support their students. Further, it has been widely reported that these challenges extend primarily to certain positions within schools – career and technical education, special education, elementary education, and social workers.
Given this evidence, as well as the student-staffing ratio trends discussed here, it is hard to see the justification for the broad scope of the governor’s statewide school employee retention bonus spending proposal. A more targeted intervention, one that would be less costly to taxpayers, would focus funding on those schools most adversely affected by high employee turnover and that face the greatest difficulties staffing specific positions.
*Throughout this blog, all staffing categories are based on the MISchoolData Staffing Count report . The education staff profile page contained on the MISchoolData Dashboard notes that it categorizes “teachers” differently from the school staffing report. This definitional discrepancy accounts for the difference in the number of teachers presented in each report.