Monday, February 06, 2023

Teachers among Montana’s most essential workers

by Daily Inter Lake
| September 11, 2022 12:00 AM

The term essential workers is not easily defined, but generally refers to the people who contribute critical services that ensure a well-functioning community. Law enforcement, first-responders and health-care workers certainly fall in that category, as do child care providers and school teachers.

Currently, Montana is facing an essential workers crisis that goes hand in hand with the state’s worsening housing situation. Job openings for nurses, police officers and teachers go unfilled as rent prices soar above wages, and homeownership remains just a dream.

To combat this trend that threatens the safety and stability of communities both large and small, the state has rolled out a number of initiatives aimed at recruiting and keeping essential workers in Montana.

Among them is the Montana Teacher Residency Demonstration Project.

The first of its kind in the state, the program incentivizes traditionally unpaid student teachers to work in rural or high-needs schools by offering stipends, housing and tuition support.

Kalispell resident Madison Loomis is one of the student teachers who has tapped into the program, and will be teaching at Cayuse Prairie School this year. Loomis told the Inter Lake that without the financial incentives, it would be a struggle to fulfill her student teaching requirements for graduation, and ultimately enter Montana’s education workforce.

“Especially in Kalispell right now,” Loomis said, referring to the area’s high cost of living.

A modest $14,000 stipend is among the project’s financial incentives, which is funded with federal Covid-19 relief money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

The project is a creative solution that offers a win-win for school districts facing a dire teacher shortage, and for education majors who need to fulfill an internship for graduation. The state would be wise to seek out continued funding for this program to ensure it lasts beyond the Covid-19 relief disbursement.

AND WHILE the student teacher project is a handy tool, the long-term problem of Montana’s embarrassing teacher wages remains the top recruitment and retention obstacle.

Montana’s average starting teacher salary of $32,495 remains the lowest in the country, according to the National Education Association’s latest data, while nearby states like Idaho, Wyoming and North Dakota offer starting salaries at least $7,000 higher.

The state Legislature took a stab at correcting Montana’s basement wages last session with the passage of the TEACH Act. The legislation incentivizes districts to bump starting wages by offering additional state funding to offset the expense. According to a Montana Free Press report, that equates to a base teacher salary of $34,720 in order to qualify for an extra $3,472 state payment.

Many districts took advantage of the incentives, yet some 57% of districts still don’t qualify as of this school year.

Clearly, there is more work to be done during the 2023 session.

As the midterm elections near, take a hard look at where state candidates stand on funding for K-12 education. Do they support competitive pay to recruit and retain top teachers, or are they satisfied with status quo and the slow erosion of Montana’s most essential workers?

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