For the first time in a decade, Montana schools are using fewer emergency authorizations than the year before as small, rural schools continue to struggle finding teachers.
The state's "last resort" option effectively allows teachers to work in a school for a year despite not being qualified to do so under state law. Its numbers have mushroomed in recent years as the state encouraged schools to use the option instead of taking an accreditation ding. In 2019-2020, it dropped to 84 compared to 94 last school year.
Montana's small rural schools have long struggled to attract and keep qualified teachers, but the shortage has reached "crisis" levels in recent years, according to experts.
The decrease is far from a sign that the issue is solved, and it's still the second highest figure in recent years. State officials have been hesitant to use emergency authorizations as an indicator of shortage conditions. What a decrease means is open to interpretation.
“It’s nice to see that number go down," said Office of Public Instruction educator licensure program manager Kris Thatcher, who presented a report to the Board of Public Education in January. “That’s one of our ultimate goals."
Dennis Parman, the director of the Montana Rural Education Association, said that the report's significance depends in part on how many schools opted for the emergency license and how many took a hit on accreditation. Initial accreditation reports won't be released until March.
“It could be a good sign," he said. “I think it depends on how rushed people were to get positions filled and get school started.”
But anecdotally, district superintendents have been telling him the same story as in recent years.
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything improve,” he said.
The report also has a new wrinkle this year; it compares licensure numbers in Montana to graduates from teacher preparation programs at Montana universities.
It's an apples-to-oranges comparison; not all newly-licensed teachers in Montana are from Montana universities, and it's unrealistic to expect every grad from Montana universities to teach in the state. But it helps compare the supply pipeline to demand in K-12 schools.
For example, Montana granted 600 new elementary licenses in 2018-2019. Montana University System schools graduated 331 students in that subject area. In special education, a longtime shortage area, 119 people were granted new Montana licenses, compared to 41 graduates in the field.
It also showed very few denials of licenses; only seven people were denied, and some of those already held a teaching license in a different area.
“I think the fact that we’re data sharing to this degree will get us to a better place in dispelling a lot of those myths,” said Angela McLean, an Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education official who has worked on teacher shortage issues.
Tammy Lacey, the Board of Public Education member who chairs the licensure committee and is the former Great Falls public schools superintendent, noted that more urban schools appeared to be using emergency licenses, with Bozeman, Great Falls, and Lockwood on this year's list.
“We often think of this as a rural issue… but it’s a statewide issue,” she said.
Billings superintendent Greg Upham previously raised concerns that the district had a pair of unfilled positions going into this school year.
Available data, including that from a report released in November, indicates that the state's smallest and most isolated schools struggle the most to find teachers. A growing body of research has found that the shortage is driven both by low pay, teachers' taste for rural versus urban lifestyles, whether a job opening matches up with their training and preference, and career advancement opportunities.
The licensure report doesn't delve into the whys of shortage areas; rather, it provides one-year snapshots. Thatcher said between newly licensed teachers and license renewals, “for the most part, it appears that we’re kind of holding our own."
Several efforts have tried to address teacher shortages. Montana State University has put a particular emphasis on rural training and rural job opportunities. Districts have offered their own variety of incentives like hiring bonuses. A state-funded loan repayment program was reinstated last year, but only after legislators previously axed it.
Several legislative proposals in 2019 didn't gain traction; a proposal for a grow-your-own program designed to train teachers with local roots, a retirement system change making it easier for retired teacher to return to work, and a recruitment and retention grant program all stalled.
There's no silver bullet for teacher shortages, but several solutions can help. Certification changes, mentorship programs and rural-specific training are scattered across Montana, but most are driven by individual districts or colleges. But Montana has passed on sweeping statewide programs, especially addressing what research shows is one of the most important solutions — salary.
More than 20 states use diversified pay programs, which offer higher salaries in high-needs districts beyond programs like loan assistance. Seven states require minimum salaries, and 17 states use a statewide salary schedule, that requires minimum salaries depending on experience.
Montana doesn’t use any of the approaches. Idaho uses a statewide salary schedule, and Wyoming uses diversified pay.
Montana's funding structure gives schools a BASE level, considered 80%. Providing the next 20% is up to local voters. Tax increases can be hard to come by in largely agricultural and residential areas, and a community's taste for taxation can affect equitable school funding.
The state already funds small rural schools at far-higher per-student levels than larger urban schools. But with few students, money doesn't pile up, and a low teacher-student ratio becomes hard to pay for.