Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) -- A bill that would expand a program aimed at addressing Montana’s teacher shortage by offering student loan help to incentivize new teachers to take open positions in hardest-hit schools is one step closer to becoming law.

The House of Representatives advanced Senate Bill 70 on a 75-25 vote Thursday after the Senate passed it 46-4 in February. 

Rep. Fred Anderson, R-Great Falls, carried the bill in the House. 

“This bill is really focused upon providing loan assistance for rural schools. Before, if you recall the bill, those of you were here, there were some areas that were identified as critical shortage areas and looking at the times since the past legislative session, the interim committee, which this bill came out of, has realized that there's not just a few areas in rural schools that have critical shortages – that almost every area does,” Anderson said. 

The program is called The Quality Educator Loan Assistance program and it works on a sliding scale of sorts. Teachers who start working in a school affected by shortages are entitled to three total years of loan repayments from the state. The repayments start at $3,000 for the first year and increase by $1,000 for each year the teacher stays working at that school. That means $4,000 for year two and $5,000 for year three. 

SB 70 would add another year of payments onto the program, funded by the district where the teacher is hired. The final year of repayment by the district is capped at $5,000 as well -- totalling a potential sum of $17,000 in loan repayments if the teacher continues working for the full four years. The bill would also expand who can qualify for the program to include more schools and teachers.

Rob Watson, the Executive Director for School Administrators in Montana, spoke as a proponent of the bill for the Coalition of Advocates from Montana Public Schools in an initial House Education hearing March 13. He said concerns about the teacher shortage aren’t going away.

“I estimated in just my conversations with our administrators that we probably have about 200 emergency authorized teachers certified this year, which has to be an all-time record, I'm assuming. But that's, that's a lot of folks that were needed to fill some spots. And the emergency authorized process is one way to do that. But I think it speaks to the concern that I have,” Watson said. 

Opponents of the bill during committee hearings said the program expansion could be costly. According to the fiscal note attached to the bill, SB 70 would spend an additional $269,000 of state money on top of the $1 million already appropriated for the program for the 2025 biennium. 

Twenty-five representatives voted against the bill Thursday. After Thursday’s vote, the bill was sent back to the House Appropriations Committee. 

According to a 2017-2018 study conducted by the Institute of Education Sciences, 65% of rural schools in Montana had difficulties filling vacant positions. And, about 20% of teachers who do sign a contract to teach in a rural school decide not to stay. As a result 36% of teachers in Montana’s rural schools hold more than one position.