Over the past decade or so, Montana has made notable progress in improving wages for public school teachers. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the state’s average teacher salary rose 12.4% between 1999 and 2018 — the seventh-largest increase in the nation over that time period. However, as education stakeholders informed the House Education Committee Monday, Montana continues to lag in one key area: starting teacher pay.

The discussion arose during a hearing on House Bill 143, which would create financial incentives for school districts to increase the salaries of teachers who are in their first three years in the profession. Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, is carrying the bill, and characterized Montana’s national ranking on starting teacher pay as “dead last.” The latest data from NCES shows that the average salary for Montana teachers in their first two years was $35,940 in 2017, or nearly $8,000 lower than the national average. Proponents of the bill noted that low salaries have made teacher recruitment and retention difficult, particularly in rural districts, where a 2019 survey conducted by Montana State University indicated the median salary for teachers in their first three years was below $34,000.

“It’s commonplace to hear that a new teacher has left the state to take a teaching job in Wyoming, where the starting teacher pay is almost 45% higher,” said Glenn Oppel, policy director for Gov. Greg Gianforte. “Low starting teacher pay in Montana causes another brain-drain that the governor wants to curtail.”

HB 143 would grant incentives to districts that increase their base teacher salary to 10 times the quality educator payment — an existing component in the state’s education budget. The incentive would amount to one additional quality educator payment for each first-, second- and third-year teacher in that district. The payment amount for fiscal year 2023 is currently estimated to be $3,472, meaning a district’s base salary would have to be $34,720 to qualify for the incentive.

Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, testified in favor of HB 143 on behalf of six education groups including the School Administrators of Montana and the Montana Federation of Public Employees. He noted that some larger districts in the state already have more competitive base teacher salaries. For those districts, HB 143 would grant the incentive if the base teacher salary were raised to 70% of the district’s average.

Funding for HB 143 was included in Gianforte’s proposed budget. No one spoke in opposition to the bill Monday.

Implementing HB 143 won’t be easy. One challenge raised by HB 143 is data collection. According to the bill’s fiscal note, the Office of Public Instruction does not currently collect information from districts related to salaries or years of teaching experience. OPI has estimated it would require roughly $47,000 annually to cover additional personnel and operating expenses associated with the incentive program. Kirk Miller, executive director of the School Administrators of Montana, told Montana Free Press that improved data collection is another benefit of HB 143. Montana’s school system has been in need of a more sophisticated data collection process for years, Miller said, not just for information on salaries, but on accreditation and teacher licensing as well.

The other initial step, MFPE President Amanda Curtis told MTFP, is for district employers and local unions this spring to negotiate the base salary increases necessary to qualify for the incentives. Funding for the incentives wouldn’t kick in until the start of fiscal year 2023, at which point the cost is estimated at $2.5 million. Curtis said the way most salary scales work, raising the base salary to qualify for the incentives would also impact salaries for more experienced teachers. That could be a considerable challenge for some smaller districts, she said, and those districts may have to look ahead several years to determine when their budgets might be flexible enough to enact the change. 

“It’s not an immediate solution for all schools,” Curtis said. “It will be an immediate solution for some schools. It will be a longer-term solution for others.” 

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...