(Daily Montanan) Education leaders in Montana pushed back this week against some of the changes the Office of Public Instruction has proposed to teacher licensing requirements and asked the Board of Public Education not to sacrifice quality for quantity.

“We do not want today’s decisions to create future conditions where Montana’s students are taught by poorly prepared teachers who are not equipped to teach and stick with the profession,” said Tricia Seifert, head of Montana State University’s Department of Education, reading from prepared remarks.

Seifert offered extensive comments and research data on behalf of the Montana Council of Deans of Education representing 10 campuses in the state.

Seifert was among the educators and members of the public who spoke Thursday at a hearing on the proposed changes to the rules that govern educator licensing, or Chapter 57. The update takes place every five years, and some of the proposals this year are meant to help address a critical teacher shortage in Montana.

In a news release Thursday about the recommended revisions, OPI said vacancies in Montana classrooms jumped 19 percent from last school year to this one in areas such as math and special education. OPI also noted that in the past five years, unlicensed teachers through emergency authorizations rose 90 percent.

Although Montana is experiencing a teacher shortage, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and members of the public who spoke at the hearing were at odds over some of the ways to fix the problem. Those who commented raised concerns about tossing out an accreditation standard, dropping requirements for years of teaching experience for licensing, and the quick pace of the sweeping changes.

But in a statement provided by OPI, Arntzen said teachers face unprecedented pressures and “intensified mandates,” and Montana needs to be flexible to hire them: “Flexibility is demanded to recruit, retain and support Montana teachers.”

In public comment, Rep. Moffie Funk, D-Helena, thanked those who have worked on the “monumental” changes, but she also said the deep extent of proposed revisions on the fast timeline makes her nervous. She said she hoped it was possible to hit the pause button.

“The breadth and speed with which proposed changes have been brought forward just makes me a little uneasy that they haven’t been delved into with quite the depth that would be appropriate,” said Funk, a Helena Democrat.

Dennis Parman, head of the Montana Rural Education Association, said he and the other education organizations he spoke on behalf of supported the majority of the superintendent’s recommendations. However, he advocated in favor of retaining some requirements, such as years of teaching experience. In one case, for example, OPI had recommended dropping a requirement for a license in Montana from three years of teaching elsewhere to zero years.

“We recommend — strongly recommend — to the Board of Public Ed two years of successful teaching experience,” Parman said.

Several members of the public also stressed the need for “approved educator preparation programs” to continue to be defined as accredited. In other words, Montana should continue to make sure that teachers coming from outside the state are adhering to the standards here.

Morgen Alwell, at the University of Montana’s Phyllis J. Washington College of Education, said externally accredited preparation programs matter because high quality education matters in Montana. However, she said she and her colleagues also are concerned about teacher shortages.

“We agree that there’s much more work that needs to be done, but we feel strongly that the proposed solutions to Chapter 57 and the changes to the licensure requirements to make it easier and more flexible to get a license miss the underlying issues of teacher isolation and low pay in rural areas,” Alwell said. “And we’re willing to work hard and develop more networks to address these issues.”

At least a couple of people said some of the proposed changes keep them up at night. Stevie Schmitz, co-chair of the Montana Council of Deans of Education, said she thinks of the educational needs of her grandchildren. But she said the problem is a lack of recruitment and lack of respect for the profession, and she too said the changes were coming quickly and in some cases, didn’t address the actual challenges.

“We shouldn’t ever sacrifice quality for quantity,” Schmitz said.

McCall Flynn, executive director for the Board of Public Education, said the board will take public comment until April 8 and meet April 28 to consider revisions to Chapter 57. It will meet again in May and take up the final proposal.