Montana is Struggling to Retain New Teachers; Experts Cite Waning Ed Graduates

The state had more than 1,000 teacher vacancies going into the new school year.

This is a photo of a teacher talking to a student at their desk.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Montana is struggling to keep new teachers in the classroom.

More than half of newly licensed teachers in Montana leave the state or the profession within the first three years on the job and 86% of education graduates decide to leave the state or don’t pursue teaching.

“​​That’s a stunning number,” said Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, Chairperson of the Education Interim Committee, during the committee’s meeting Tuesday.

Data on teacher retention in the state was presented to the committee by national nonprofit the Learning Policy Institute and in an update from the Office of Public Instruction.

Montana is looking at more than 1,000 teacher vacancies going into the upcoming school year – a problem stemming in part from financial constraints on teachers, lack of mentorship and less education graduates going into the field. Proposed solutions included more compensation and increased access to teacher education.

In order to fill the gap, the number of Emergency Authorization of Employments rose more than 90% and doubled in two years, according to OPI. Accreditation and Licensure Director of OPI Crystal Andrews said she believed 32 school districts in the state have applied for at least one emergency authorization.

Andrews said qualifications for authorizations can vary, but gave examples of how in practice it can look like paraprofessionals or student teachers getting their own classrooms, or a music teacher from the local church coming to teach in school.

She said the most authorizations have been for elementary school classrooms, math, English, health and physical education teachers, as well as school counselors.

Andrews also discussed the teacher pipeline issue. With 383 education graduates from the Montana University System, there aren’t enough educators to meet the vacancies. And on top of that, a vast majority of them don’t go to work in Montana schools. The Learning Policy Institute said enrollment in education programs in Montana has gone down 45% in the last nine years.

Andrews said she would be interested in working with the universities to get data on where these students go and why they leave.

One reason the Learning Policy Institute cited was financial. Montana is dead last in starting teacher salaries, which average $36,480.

“They talk about and there’s no place to live, and all the things that go with that and you throw in a student loan,” said Salomon. “They can’t afford to be the teacher.”

One quarter of teachers in the state reported having a second job during the school year, according to data from the Learning Policy Institute. An estimated 40% have student loan payments and across the state teachers spend on average $500 of their own money on classroom supplies without reimbursement.

Increased compensation for teachers along with higher quality preparation for the classroom were among recommendations from the institute to increase retention.

Learning Policy Institute Chief of Policy and Program Tara Kini said that research has supported competitive compensation being a big factor in recruitment, and noted that the data from 2021 in the presentation might not reflect progress made since the TEACH Act was implemented, which provided $2.5 million to increase teacher pay.

“It may be worth considering how this program could be expanded to reach even more educators than the 500 early-career teachers that it currently serves,” Kini said.

Gov. Greg Gianforte promoted the TEACH Act at an event at Lockwood High School in Billings, touting a 40% increase in funds to the program in the last legislative session. According to a press release Tuesday, funds from the program helped Lockwood fill their 18 vacancies.

Kini mentioned alternative compensation strategies like providing housing, childcare incentives or student loan forgiveness. She said districts in other states have passed initiatives to build subsidized rental housing for teachers and used federal funds for housing for teachers.

A recent survey of Montana teachers found a school being close to where the teacher lives was the top factor in their decision to accept their current job, senior researcher with the Learning Policy Institute Susan Patrick said during the presentation.

Montana’s Grow Your Own program, designed to prepare high school students for careers in education in their local schools, didn’t receive funding in the last legislative session, Patrick noted. She said states have turned to apprenticeship programs like Grow Your Own to help with the pipeline issues.

Having a supportive administration at a school is another big factor for teacher retention. Patrick said Idaho developed a new principals academy as well as a network for principals for support, especially for schools that were identified as needing improvement in the state.

Rep. Linda Reksten, R-Polson, who formerly served as superintendent in Butte and in Polson, asked if there was training in universities for principals in the state.

“My observation is, unless you have really strong district leadership, it isn’t happening,” she said.

The Legislature’s Office of Research and Policy Analysis outlined a list of programs in Montana’s “toolbox” for addressing teacher retention, including a teacher residency program passed last session that uses federal dollars to place students in a year-long, practice-based learning experience, focusing on placements in rural schools.

“As we grow that program, we’ll continue to work and find opportunities for schools to bring Montanans in to teach Montana’s kids – especially in those rural areas where there’s such a critical shortage,” bill sponsor Rep. Brad Barker, R-Red Lodge, said at the event in Billings according to the release.

Another program provides loan assistance for the first three years of a teacher’s career, with payments of $3,000, $4,000, and $5,000. The program helped more than 100 teachers in fiscal year 2023, according to the analysis.

Teachers also have the opportunity to receive stipends for earning a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification, which can take years to complete, with a payout between $500 and $2,500 depending on the district. There was an $180,000 appropriation for the bill, which has been utilized by about 200 teachers.

“Through collaborative efforts and creative solutions, and a commitment to valuing and supporting our teachers, we can build a brighter future for Montana students and educators alike,” said Andrews. “Let us work together to transform the landscape of education ensuring that our teachers are not only recruited, but also valued and inspired to stay for the benefit of our children.”

Daily Montanan is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Daily Montanan maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Darrell Ehrlick for questions: info@dailymontanan.com. Follow Daily Montanan on Facebook and Twitter.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today