Monday, May 27, 2024

Montana must keep teacher licensing fees low

by Elsie Arntzen
| November 14, 2023 12:00 AM

Should Montana increase teacher licensing fees? The answer is simple, no. Why would we consider shifting the burden of covering the cost of licensing to our teachers who are struggling to make ends meet?

As I have previously promised, I will not support increasing taxes on our teachers. For some time, I have been working to change the landscape of public education to be more student and family-focused. Learning occurs in the classroom with individual teachers caring for and recognizing students and families. We need to remove any hurdle to recruiting and retaining quality educators. 

During the upcoming Board of Public Education meeting on Nov. 15-17, the board will vote on a new teacher licensing fee structure. House Bill 403, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, amended teacher licensing from being set in law to allowing the Superintendent of Public Instruction to recommend the fee amounts to the board. The purpose of this change was to ensure full self-funding for TeachMT, OPI’s new digital teacher licensing system, including personnel services. I am urging the board to accept my proposed teacher licensing funding method, which leaves the teacher license fee unchanged. My complete proposed fee structure to accomplish the goal of HB 403 is as follows: 

• Application fee (new licenses): $6 — remains the same 

• Teacher license (5-year license): $30 — remains the same $6/year 

• Administrator license (5-year license): $225 — $45/year, an increase of $31/year 

• Emergency authorization: $30 — annual fee remains the same 

• Internships: $30 — annual fee remains the same 

• Technology fee: $25 — new, one-time fee every five years 

Raising teacher licensing fees would be historic, as these fees have not changed since 1991. According to  the March 2022 “Montana Teacher License Cost Analysis” from the Montana Legislature Fiscal Division, the average cost of teacher licenses among states with general fund subsidized fees, including Montana, is $45 every five years. The term “general fund subsidized fees” means that states use general fund  dollars to support their licensing programs. The general fund, of course, is made up of a variety of dollars collected from taxpayers, most notably in the form of income and property taxes. 

Many schools across our great state have help-wanted signs in their windows. Schools are struggling to find classroom teachers, librarians and counselors. Raising taxes on our Montana teachers would only place an additional obstacle on teacher recruitment and retention.

Montana ranks 51st in the nation, including Washington, D.C., with an average starting teacher salary of  $33,568. This is embarrassing and unacceptable. 

On a slightly better note, Montana ranks 44th for its average teacher salary of $53,628. There are approximately 11,000 teachers in Montana’s 826 public  schools.

On the administrative side, the average full-time principal salary in Montana is $94,394, while the  average full-time superintendent salary is $117,537. If the licensing fee structure needs to be modified to be self-funded, it seems that a $31 per year increase to this higher compensated group of professionals is a better solution. 

From the perspective of a 23-year classroom teacher, I don’t want to do any action that might further deter quality educators from teaching in our state. The elected board of trustees in each district sets the budget and hires a superintendent to implement the board’s actions. The logical solution is to raise license fees only for those with more compensation, authority, and responsibility in public education in Montana and to refrain from adding any further burden on our classroom teachers.

Elsie Arntzen is superintendent of public instruction for Montana.