Appearing before the Montana Board of Public Education Thursday, Office of Public Instruction representatives Julie Murgel, right, and Crystal Andrews review changes to state teacher licensing regulations proposed by Superintendent Elsie Arntzen. Credit: Screenshot courtesy of MPAN

On Thursday, the Montana Board of Public Education conducted its first review of state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen’s proposed changes to regulations governing teacher licensing. The proposals were the result of a months-long regulatory revision process undertaken last year by a 24-member task force composed of teachers, administrators and other education stakeholders, and included a recommendation to offer reciprocity for military spouses licensed to teach in other states.

The regulations up for revision fall under Chapter 57 of the Office of Public Instruction’s administrative rules, which outlines the types of educator licenses available in Montana, the requirements necessary to obtain those licenses, and methods for resolving individual licensing disputes. Over a span of more than two hours, board members and OPI staff went over Arntzen’s recommendations line by line, discussing the various reasons for each. In the case of reciprocity for military spouses, Crystal Andrews, OPI’s director of educator licensing, cited written testimony from the U.S. Department of Defense noting that barriers to licensing can have a negative financial impact on military families.

“Removing these barriers, creating reciprocity in licensing requirements, and facilitating placement opportunities can help a military family’s financial stability, speed the assimilation of the family into its new location and create a desirable new employer pool for a state,” Andrews said, adding that such a licensing mechanism would have been put to use in at least four instances in Montana in 2021.

Arntzen’s proposals also include a series of regulatory alterations designed to broaden eligibility for teachers, specifically those who have entered the profession through educator preparation programs that may not be recognized in Montana. The new recommendations would no longer require teachers to complete an accredited program to obtain Montana licensure, but rather would recognize any alternative preparatory program approved by a board of education or state agency in another state. OPI’s stated rationale for the change, as well as for reducing the required years of experience for teachers from alternative pathways from five years to none, is to remove licensing barriers that may discourage educators from seeking employment in Montana.

“So we’re trusting other states, and any state agency within that state, to validate the quality of the nontraditional alternative educator prep program?” board member Tammy Lacey asked during OPI’s presentation of the recommendations.

“That is correct,” OPI Senior Manager of School Innovation and Improvement Julie Murgel replied, noting that Montana already makes such determinations on a case-by-case basis. Murgel added the board heard one such case at its November meeting, which resulted in the board approving the license.

One of the biggest shifts proposed by Arntzen impacts that very process. The Board of Public Education currently has oversight of unusual cases involving individual disputes about licensing requirements. The board heard 15 such cases last year. Prior to 2017, authority over those cases rested with the superintendent of public instruction, and Arntzen has recommended transferring that oversight back to her office. The proposal was not among the changes suggested to Arntzen by the Chapter 57 Review Task Force. Murgel explained that the proposal is intended to resolve unusual cases in a more timely manner, given that the board meets only once every two months, and to create an opportunity for individuals to appeal licensure denials to the board. 

Outgoing board member Darlene Schottle recalled that the 2017 shift in oversight was designed to provide consistency in that hearing process, as superintendents and OPI staff change over time. Schottle added that in the year prior to the shift, questions were raised as to why some unusual cases had been approved and others hadn’t. Board member Anne Keith asked what Arntzen was hoping to get out of the change. In response, OPI Chief Legal Council Jake Griffith assured members that Arntzen was not “trying to usurp the board’s power in any way.”

“So we’re trusting other states, and any state agency within that state, to validate the quality of the nontraditional alternative educator prep program?”

State Board of Education member Tammy Lacey

“The idea here is that the Office of Public Instruction could process these unusual cases in a more timely fashion than having to bring them before the board,” Griffith said.

The proposed changes to Chapter 57 are now up for public comment through April 8, and a public hearing will be held in Helena on Feb. 24. The board is scheduled to take action on the revisions in May.

“I applaud the great work of the Montanans that gathered to aid in these recommendations,” Arntzen said in an email statement announcing the proposals Thursday. “I encourage our Montana parents, teachers, and community leaders to review these flexible changes that demand quality education in our Montana public schools.”

During Thursday’s meeting, board members received several other updates pertinent to teacher licensing in Montana. Andrews and OPI contractor Zam Alidina briefed the board on the latest developments in the agency’s transition to a new teacher licensing system. Alidina assured members that the project is still on track for a June 1 implementation of the new system. In the meantime, Andrews said, the licensing department is accepting paper applications for teacher license renewals as well as new licenses. In the first two weeks of January, she added, her department has received more than 200 renewal applications, and so far the process has been “seamless.”

“We knew that at the beginning it’d be heavy,” Andrews said. “The mail’s coming in very heavy, everyone’s anxious to get their licenses renewed … But it’s starting to slow down, just a little bit each day, so we will get caught up to where we need to be.”

Later, Andrews presented a report on teacher licensing activity in 2021. According to that report, OPI approved 1,646 new educator licenses, an increase of roughly 400 over the previous year. The total included 1,013 standard teaching licenses, 229 three-year provisional licenses and 99 one-year provisional licenses. The agency also granted 173 emergency employment authorizations to districts that were unable to fill positions. Of those emergency authorizations, 81 were for elementary K-8 teachers.

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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...