State Should Invest in Needed Professionals to Support Students and Relieve Overburdened Teachers
Over the next few months, Michigan’s lawmakers will decide how to spend a truly incredible amount of discretionary surplus money, over $5 billion, including surplus state funds and unspent federal aid. With $1 billion of these untethered funds allocated so far for business incentives, still nearly nothing has been prioritized for meeting critical issues that affect children, youth, and families.
The truth is, Michigan faces shortages of just about every kind of professional serving children and families of all ages and facing all kinds of challenges.
There is the current workforce shortage facing our K-12 schools, from teachers to paraprofessionals to bus drivers. There is a chance that money is put aside for pay incentives, but K-12 teachers are far from our state’s only shortages of educators. Communities across Michigan are missing afterschool teachers, early childhood educators, and teachers who specialize in adult skill-building and family literacy. All these sectors deserve support to grow and retain their workforce.
In addition to insufficient pay and benefits, we are bleeding teachers because teachers too often are asked to deal on their own with problems beyond their control.
Some of these needs could and should be met by professionals outside the school building. Social workers are found in the community performing a variety of critical services for kids and families, helping:
- Youth, to grow from their mistakes in juvenile justice diversion programs or to find stability from a recent period of homelessness or runaway.
- Parents, to access resources like food and housing to remain strong through temporary instability and avoid child neglect.
- Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other kin, to navigate complex systems when assuming the care of children in their families.
- Police, responding to crisis calls either alongside police or without them entirely, when a behavioral intervention could be more effective than force.
Unfortunately, research from the National Association of Social Workers suggests that recruitment and retention are issues, with some sectors increasingly hiring non-social work professionals to fill needs.
Michigan faces a debilitating shortage of other mental health professionals as well. While investment has slightly increased recently, nearly two dozen Michigan counties lack at least one of: a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or a substance use treatment facility. Current proposals to extend loan forgiveness to a few additional mental health students are necessary but fall far short of the current need.
Other needs are best met by in-school professionals. Classroom teachers end up dealing with a myriad of non-instructional student supports that are best handled by other school professionals if there were enough of them. Such as:
- Helping students figure out their futures with little to no support from school counselors who are often overworked.
- Accommodating students’ behavioral needs when no school psychiatrists or other mental health professionals are present.
- Navigating the effects of students’ material needs and other worries that could be solved or prevented with the help of a school-based social worker.
By investing more into professionals both in-school and out-of-school, teachers could be left focusing on instructional and academic support to help their children learn. For years, Michigan has failed to prioritize transformational investment in supports that are proven to help young people and families become engaged citizens and productive members of their communities and economy.
Recent investment into school mental health professionals is a positive development for in-school staff, though questions remain over how many staff our schools will actually be able to hire and whether the state is committed to funding these positions year-in and year-out. But it’s a start. And for essential professionals out-of-school, there is far less good news so far.
For every year of this disinvestment, overburdened professionals get burnt out and leave for other states for better pay, switch careers, or they leave the workforce altogether. And the prospects for a future in these rewarding lines of work grow dimmer, causing young people to choose other careers.
Our leaders just gave $1 billion to attract companies to set up shop within our borders. Now is the time to invest in a workforce who can set up shop in the service of children, youth, and families.
Bobby Dorigo Jones is Michigan’s Children Vice President. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org