A proposal to increase licensing fees for teachers received polite pushback Monday from Montana’s Office of Public Instruction and a pair of organizations representing public school employees.
Montana currently charges a $6 fee to educators applying for a new license or renewing an existing license. That rate has been set in state law since 1991, and remains the lowest teacher licensing fee in the region. House Bill 403, introduced by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, would strike the specific dollar amount from Montana’s law and direct OPI to adopt a new rate sufficient to fully fund the agency’s educator licensing system. Speaking before the House Education Committee Monday, Bedey estimated that the new fee would likely come in around $20 to $25, and framed the proposal as a way to recognize the value of the teaching profession.
“Aligning licensing practices for teachers with those of other professions is a desirable outcome, is the way we should operate going forward,” Bedey said. “If I might say, I think a $6 license fee for teachers is actually an insult to the teaching profession.”
However, in voicing OPI’s opposition to the bill, chief financial officer Jay Phillips argued the per-license cost of supporting the agency’s licensing system was $62.76 last year. That, he continued, means teachers would potentially have to pay an additional $56.76 to make up the difference. Phillips did clarify that the total costs of licensure will decrease slightly in coming years due to the rollout of OPI’s new online licensing system, which requires fewer staff to process applications. Still, he said, the ongoing maintenance cost for that system alone is roughly $180,000 annually, and he stressed that state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen believes the state should “hold teachers harmless” and continue to cover at least a portion of the costs of licensure.
“At a minimum, the superintendent requested that the state still continue at least to have some skin in the game and still provide some cost savings to the teachers so that they’re not having to absorb all of the costs all at one time,” Phillips said.
OPI’s position was seconded by Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis, whose organization represents the majority of teachers and school employees throughout the state. Curtis, along with the bill’s two other opponents, thanked Bedey for his work on other education policy proposals this session, but argued that HB 403 fails to take into account the unique status of the teaching profession in Montana. Unlike other licensed trades, she said, educators lack the ability to adjust their earnings to absorb a fee increase. She added that the differences are also embedded in the Montana Constitution.
“The Legislature has a constitutional mandate to provide a free, quality, basic public education system, to fund it,” Curtis said. “I propose to you that the licensing system that we’re talking about here is part of that obligation. That is definitely different than any other licensing board or profession in Montana.”
Doug Reisig, executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition, testified that many Montana schools both rural and urban are struggling to find qualified teachers. He recognized that the state may have to take a look at licensing fees “sometime down the road,” but said his organization has concerns about any changes in the present that could have a “negative impact on the recruitment and retention of teachers.”
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Teacher recruitment and retention is a driving force behind a growing number of policy proposals this session, among them a broadly supported pitch from Bedey to establish a statewide health insurance trust for public schools. According to the National Education Association, average starting teacher pay in Montana for the 2020-21 school year was the lowest in the country at $32,495 — a statistic that’s also motivating lawmakers to explore increased funding for an incentive program passed in 2021 to boost salaries for new teachers.
As Bedey indicated in the hearing, HB 403 is rooted in conversations among lawmakers on two separate education committees during the previous legislative interim. Those conversations included the prospect of redirecting teacher licensing fees from the Board of Public Education to OPI — a change Arntzen staked out as one of her top policy priorities for the 2023 session, and one that HB 403 would implement. Phillips noted that OPI has already requested General Fund dollars for the licensing system as part of its broader budget ask for the next two years, factoring that redirect into its calculations.
Bedey acknowledged that there is a discrepancy between his calculation of what the new licensing fee might be and the estimations introduced by OPI, and vowed to reconcile those numbers moving forward. But in his closing remarks, he stood by his stance that a fee amount comparable to a cup of coffee — “if you like the fancy stuff” — is more an insult than a mark of professional respect. And as for maintaining lower fees, he said, that responsibility should fall to the agency tasked with licensing.
“I think the skin in the game ought not be from the General Fund of the state of Montana but should be from the Superintendent of Public Instruction, who ought to be running this operation as efficiently as possible so as to keep the license fees down,” Bedey said.
HB 403 will come up for a vote before the House Education Committee at a later date. If approved, it will pass to the House floor for debate.
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