Lawmakers push to boost rural teacher recruitment efforts

Lawmakers push to boost rural teacher recruitment efforts

(Mont.) Montana lawmakers are pushing a handful of bills to reduce the shortage of qualified teachers in its more rural schools through student loan repayment programs and recruitment efforts targeting retired educators.

One bill, SB 139, would allow schools with 120 or fewer students to hire retired teachers to fill critical spots while continuing to draw on their retirement pay.

A second bill, HB 211, would create a $500,000 a year student loan repayment program for rural schools with critical teacher shortages to attract new teachers. The bill was recently approved in both houses and is headed to the governor’s desk.

Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, author of HB 211, said at the beginning of the school year, rural districts reported a more than 14 percent vacancy rate of accredited teachers, compared to a rate of 0.1 percent in city schools.

“We obviously have a recruitment and retention issue in the rural regions,” Jones said, noting that the issue isn’t new, and has actually been brought up in the Legislature before. Prior attempts to address the problem failed because of a lack of funding, which he said his bill addresses.

“We’ve seen a bill like this before–last session–but we forgot to put any money into appropriations for it, so it didn’t work,” Jones said during a Senate hearing last month. “This time we’ve both appropriated it and have (bill language) that says we should do it. If we have the both together we should be more successful this time.”

Since the recession, districts throughout the country have reported struggling to find enough fully credentialed teachers–especially in certain subjects, as potential teaching candidates went into higher-paying career fields. Many states responded by increasing funding for teacher recruitment and retainment efforts, adopting or expanding teacher housing options, streamlining credentialing pathways and boosting overall teacher pay.

Rural districts often report facing even more extensive shortages than their urban counterparts.

If signed by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Jones’ bill would provide tax-exempt loan assistance payments for up to three years to teachers who choose to teach in rural school districts. The payments would increase each year, with a first-year teacher receiving $3,000, followed by $4,000 their second year, and $5,000 the third year.

HB 211 has received support from the Montana Rural Education Association and the Montana Federation of Public Employees.

SB 139, authored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, seeks to change rules in the state retirement system to make it easier for retired teachers to return to the classroom while receiving both a paycheck and their retirement benefits. Representatives from the state retirement system and state teacher's union have come out in opposition of the bill, which they argued would lead to “double dipping.”

The bill would only apply to schools with 120 or fewer students, who would be allowed to hire retired educators who have at least 27 years of classroom experience. Those teachers would still collect their full retirement pay for up to three additional years in the classroom.

Other bills that sought to address rural teacher shortages appear to have stalled in committee.

One would have created a grant program to help rural schools with recruitment and retention efforts, while another aimed to provide funding for grow-your-own programs that make teacher training more accessible and build pipelines for rural students interested in teaching.

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