rural montana teachers schools
Credit: Erik Petersen

A Montana Office of Public Instruction report released Friday shows notable decreases in 2022 in the number of newly licensed teachers and those obtaining emergency employment authorizations following significant spikes in 2021.

According to OPI’s report, the agency approved 1,207 new licenses last year, the lowest total since at least 2018. It also granted 134 emergency authorization requests, which enable administrators to hire an unlicensed educator for one year while that educator pursues full licensure or the school continues to search for an applicant to fill a position permanently. Based on the report, the bulk of those authorizations were in smaller rural districts that have historically faced challenges in recruiting new teachers.

“Our schools mirror the many help wanted signs in businesses throughout our Montana communities,” state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said in a statement accompanying the report’s release. “I have sought solutions by offering flexibilities in our teacher licensing rules, streamlining our teacher licensing system, increasing our professional development courses, and developing a teacher residency program to ensure our first year teachers are classroom ready.”

Arntzen’s office will present its 2022 licensure report to the Montana Board of Public Education at the board’s meeting Jan. 12-13. Among the recent initiatives Arntzen alluded to in her statement Friday were the launch of a new online licensing system for educators last summer, and an at-times controversial revision of state licensure regulations approved by the board of public education in May.

The emergency authorizations from 2022 speak to a number of critical shortage areas for public schools across Montana, with nearly half of them granted for educators at the K-8 level. Specialized instructional positions such as health and physical education, family and consumer sciences, and English language and literature in grades 5-12 also saw multiple emergency employment approvals.

On the new license front, more than a third of the credentials issued by OPI were for teachers with endorsements in earth sciences. Roughly 100 new educators were granted licenses in special education, an area that school officials and public education advocates have increasingly indicated is in dire need of additional staff throughout the state. Those same voices have also expressed deep concern about the level of available mental health support for students, particularly in the wake of contentious changes to in-school mental health programs and debates about eliminating a state-mandated ratio for school counselors. According to the report, OPI issued 27 new K-12 school counselor licenses statewide in 2022.

The number of licenses granted to new teachers in Montana declined by nearly 300 during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, before jumping to 1,646 in 2021. Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis, whose organization represents the majority of public school employees in the state, speculated that the rise in new licenses during the pandemic’s second year may have resulted from attempts to address gaps in learning stemming from the shift between remote and in-person instruction. Her “best guess” for the 2021 spike, she said, is that some districts used federal COVID relief funds to hire certified specialists to work one-on-one with students experiencing those gaps. 

Curtis added that while educator prep programs on Montana college campuses typically produce enough candidates each year to fill most open positions in the state, those new teachers often seek employment elsewhere, meaning they aren’t pursuing licenses here.

“Their preference by far is to teach near either where they grew up or near where they went to school, and they’re not able to do that because they can’t afford to,” said Curtis, noting that average teacher wages in Montana are among the lowest in the country. “Our health care expenses in Montana take out such a huge chunk of their take-home pay. And then housing on top of that and day care costs on top of that mean that some first-year teachers are being asked to teach for free.”

Asked via email for OPI’s assessment, agency spokesperson Brian O’Leary wrote that Montana experienced a 10% decline in the number of students exiting educator prep programs between 2020 and 2021. Even so, O’Leary continued, 557 new teachers completed those programs in 2021 — more than enough to fill the 503 active openings currently on OPI’s jobs website. 

“We know that not all of the students that completed a prep program were originally from Montana, nor did they all stay in Montana,” O’Leary concluded.  

Teacher pay has emerged as one of the most prominent discussion points when it comes to recruitment and retention. Montana lawmakers passed a bill in 2021 to incentivize increases to starting teacher pay, and a proposal to bolster that program with additional funding has already been requested in the 2023 Legislature. Curtis said she hopes legislators this spring will explore other policies that make employment more tenable for educators considering positions in Montana schools, adding that any proposals to ease health care costs — including allowing teachers to form a statewide insurance pool — could go a long way in addressing workforce challenges.

This story was updated Jan. 6, 2023, to include post-publication comment from OPI. It was updated again Jan. 9, 2023, to correct the date of OPI’s licensure report presentation to the Montana Board of Public Education.

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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...