Update: Montana’s Board of Public Education voted unanimously Thursday, May 12, to adopt a series of changes to educator licensing regulations in the state, closing the book on a complex process that began more than a year ago. State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen praised the board’s decision in an emailed statement, saying the revisions “will maintain teacher quality while opening the door for the wider recruitment of educators in Montana and across the United States.” Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis, whose organization represents public school employees throughout the state, continued to voice concern to the board that certain changes to licensing requirements will degrade the professional standards applied to Montana teachers.
The board’s executive director, McCall Flynn, issued the following statement from the board regarding the adoption: “The Board of Public Education has worked hard to balance changes in administrative rule that provide for more flexibilities for our local school districts, while still maintaining quality. It is our hope that these changes will alleviate some of the challenges we face in recruitment and retention of educators, which in turn will support students all across Montana.”
During a special meeting Thursday, April 28, the Montana Board of Public Education combed through more than 130 public comments submitted on proposed revisions to state teacher licensing regulations — one of the final steps toward adoption of the changes.
The process kicked off last June when a 24-member task force began poring over rules surrounding educator certification in the state, including the types of licenses available and the requirements necessary to obtain them. Proposals from the task force then passed to Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, whose agency oversees the bulk of the regulations contained in Chapter 57, and Arntzen presented her resulting proposals to the Board of Public Education in January. From the beginning, Arntzen and others in Montana’s public education system have framed the process as an opportunity to remove obstacles to teacher licensure and enact regulatory improvements that will attract more educators to the state.
Last year, 137 Montana schools employed unlicensed teachers, more than half of them in rural areas. MTFP partnered with the Hechinger Report to investigate how continued barriers to teacher certification are impacting administrators, teachers and classrooms.
The April 28 meeting was an exhaustive review of comments from educators, state officials and the general public submitted between Jan. 13 and April 8. Throughout the day, board members picked over and discussed each comment in turn, systematically voting on whether to agree with expressions of support for or opposition to specific regulatory changes. Many of the comments, and resulting votes, were geared toward clearing up potential confusion in the new language, improving the specificity of the revised regulations or, in one case, catching an incomplete sentence in the draft recommendations and proposing a fix.
The board did resolve several lingering issues that have cropped up during the Chapter 57 review process. Responding to concerns about language making it easier for military spouses and dependents to receive in-state teacher licenses, board member Madalyn Quinlan said she’d spoken with representatives from Malmstrom Air Force Base to help draft a narrower regulatory definition of “dependents” — a definition the board unanimously adopted. Arntzen’s attempt to broaden licensing requirements to accommodate teachers who completed an alternative educator preparation program also sparked public concern about regulatory definitions.
In addressing the issue of approved teacher preparation programs, board chair Tammy Lacey said she’d recently read an article in the Dallas Morning News about ongoing compliance problems at Texas’ largest teacher preparation company, which reportedly enrolled roughly 70,000 candidates last year.
“They’re walking the same line between quality and quantity in Texas, and with that many there’s a potential that we would get candidates from the Texas Teachers of Tomorrow,” Lacey said. “This is why there’s concern about the alternate programs and why we need to have those safeguards and those sideboards on the candidates that are coming.”
Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to agree with comments supportive of Arntzen’s proposed change, with multiple members noting that other requirements specific to certain types of licenses are adequate to ensure the quality of public school teachers in Montana.
The board also appeared to settle its stance on a proposed transition of authority over disputes about individual licensing situations. Currently, such situations — known as “unusual cases” — are settled by the board, which reviews the circumstances preventing an individual educator from obtaining a license and decides on a resolution. Arntzen has recommended shifting that authority to the state superintendent, which two commenters characterized as an abdication by the board of its responsibilities. A third comment reviewed Thursday claimed the change “paves the way for partisan politics to enter the process.”
Lacey voiced mixed feelings on the issue, and after debating the matter among themselves, the board turned to OPI’s licensure director, Crystal Andrews, to determine if the change would address a live and ongoing problem. Andrews confirmed that on more than one occasion in recent years, aspiring educators have experienced notable delays in obtaining their licenses as a result of waiting for a scheduled board meeting to make their case.
“The urgency from our candidates is [that] this needs to be addressed at a faster pace than just at the board meetings,” Andrews said.
The board received 12 comments supporting the change, including from Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office and from the Montana Public Education Coalition, which represents the state’s major public education associations. In the board’s vote to agree with those comments and disagree with the three opposing commenters, Lacey was the sole dissenting vote.
Not all the comments reviewed received a flat thumbs-up or thumbs-down. In fact, board members indicated that several were worthy of further discussion and possible future action. Among those was a comment reacting to the proposed new pathway for school counselors to obtain school administrator certification and suggesting that a similar pathway be created for school psychologists. A motion to disagree with the comment but raise the subject again at a later date was approved unanimously.
At the close of the meeting, newly appointed board member Tim Tharp, who previously served as Montana’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, acknowledged that not all the changes will be viewed favorably by veteran educators in the state.
“There are going to be veterans who look at this and say yes, we’ve lowered the bar, we’ve changed expectations, we made it easier. But I think the reality is we’re addressing current situations, we’re looking for alternatives and recognizing that the world is changing. Our process of obtaining education, our process of obtaining knowledge, and honoring that knowledge with credentials … we’re trying to reflect those changes while still maintaining high standards.”
This story was updated May 13, 2022, to include the Board of Public Education’s approval of new educator licensing regulations.
In a Wednesday appearance billed as the first in a series of events announcing policy priorities for next year’s legislative session, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he wants to raise the exemption threshold for Montana’s business equipment tax.
This fall, 20 school districts across the state are exploring a new approach to standardized testing. The Office of Public Instruction-led pilot, backed by $3 million in federal funding, seeks to replace Montana’s year-end exams with incremental tests throughout the school year.
Despite Montana’s unemployment rate of 2.8% as of August and an above-average labor force participation, Montana’s workforce can’t keep up with the sheer number of unfilled jobs. In Missoula, that means a battle to attract employees.