Montana May See 1,000 Teacher Vacancies Leading into 2023-24 School Year

OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary said the number of new licenses in 2022-2023 was the lowest in five years

By Nicole Girten, Daily Montanan
First day of school at Columbia Falls High School on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen said Thursday the state could see 1,000 teacher vacancies going into the upcoming school year — or roughly one in 10 positions.

“A thousand new teachers or teachers will be requested within our 928 schools across our state, our 402 school districts,” Arntzen said during the Montana Board of Public Education meeting.

Teacher pay has been an ongoing challenge in Montana, especially for rookies, and the dearth of teachers this year mirrors the shortage last school year.

At the meeting, board members discussed teacher recruitment, retention as well as potential adjustments to licensure requirements as they related to the vacancies.

Despite boosts to their wages in recent years, Montana pays the lowest average starting salary for teachers in the country at $33,568, according to an April report from the National Education Association.

The idea to change license requirements has been controversial, and educators have said Montana must maintain quality. At the meeting Thursday, however, Arntzen said a potential change in licensure standards should not be seen as diluting teacher quality, but as giving school districts more flexibility.

Some of the proposed changes include recognizing licenses for nationally board-certified teachers and increasing access for expired licensees to reenter the classroom, according to an Office of Public Instruction press release.

“This is enhancing to make sure that we hand districts the ability to be able to hire,” Arntzen said.

OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary said in an email to the Daily Montanan the number of new licenses in 2022-2023 was the lowest in five years, at 1,207. The number of licenses in the state that were renewed, upgraded and added endorsements was the second lowest in the last five years.

“Many businesses are struggling to fill positions throughout our great state, and schools are no exception,” O’Leary said.

Crystal Andrews, director of accreditation, educator preparation programs, and licensure for the state, is slated to lead a discussion on potential revisions to licensure standards Friday, according to the state board’s agenda.

At the meeting, Arntzen talked about another strategy intended to help fill vacancies. In the Teacher Residency Program through the state’s universities, students spend their fourth year of study in the classroom with a teacher mentor, with a requirement the new teacher stays in the community.

Board Vice Chairperson Susie Hedalen, who works as a superintendent in Townsend, said later in the meeting her school hired one of the residents through that program to become a full-time teacher.

“It was a lot of work for the mentoring teacher, the student teacher and the principal,” she said. “They put a lot of time and effort into it, (and) we have a great new teacher next year.”

O’Leary said OPI doesn’t hold data on all of the public school teacher vacancies in the state, but its Jobs for Teachers webpage lists 1,089 openings for teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals and counselors as of Thursday.

Teaching positions make up 950 of the positions posted, O’Leary said, adding OPI can’t guarantee the listings don’t include duplicate postings, for example. He said school districts are also not required to post their job listings on the site.

The number of vacancies this time of year is consistent with last year, with O’Leary saying near the end of July 2022 there were more than 1,100 job postings on the OPI Jobs for Teachers page. The NEA reported there being more than 10,800 teaching jobs in the state.

Other efforts OPI is making include hosting job fairs to connect teachers and school districts, with the next one on Aug. 4 online. The department is also touting the expansion of the TEACH Act to increase new teacher pay and loan assistance for teachers at “impacted schools,” meaning alternative or rural education settings.

Board member Jane Lee Hamman said she thought teacher retention should be a high priority for the next legislative session.

“We can start to think about some of the plans for structural changes and additions for the next session, because I think that’s going to be critical,” she said.

Angela McLean, in the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said licensure and making sure educators in all fields get to where they are needed in the state is critical.

“It’s not just enough to just make sure that we have a teacher that will stay in the more urban parts of Montana. We want to get them to some of these rural communities where they have long been needed the most,” she said.

This story originally appeared in the The Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.