Montana Standard: Tester lauds new legislation benefiting public schools

HELENA — As a former classroom teacher in Big Sandy and later a school board member, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, may have more insight into the challenges public schools face than many a member of Congress.

On Friday, he took the opportunity to shine a spotlight on new education legislation he worked to pass in Congress and also draft legislation he’s championing.

Speaking to the Montana Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals conference at the Great Northern Hotel, Tester lauded the demise of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

He noted overwhelming bipartisan support for the replacement bill, Every Student Succeeds Act, and talked about legislation he is sponsoring to help recruit more classroom teachers.

“I know that many of your classrooms are struggling to find and keep good teachers. … In 2013 there were over 1,100 teaching positions across Montana that needed to be filled,” he said.

“In rural schools, half the math and science teaching positions are considered very difficult to fill each year. And to be honest, these difficulties are going to get worse. Thirty percent of the teachers in this country will retire in the next 10 years.”

This will not only have an impact on classrooms but also the availability of quality principals, he said, which makes recruiting and retaining educators critically important.

“That’s why this past October I introduced the REST (Rural Educator Support and Training) Act,” he said.

It provides for those who are getting degrees in education or school administration who contract to work in rural schools for at least three years to be eligible for scholarships to pay for their education, Tester said.

Those who commit to work in rural schools for five years can receive $17,000 in student loan forgiveness after fulfilling their commitment.

“I know why you are struggling to get qualified teachers,” he said, citing “appalling” pay.

When Tester was teaching in the late 1970s, he made more money cutting meat on Saturday than he had made all week in the classroom, he said.

“That’s not right. Today teacher attrition is at an all-time high, and 55 percent of our teachers are leaving the classroom to pursue another career. How could you blame them?” he asked.

They can make better salaries as truck drivers and in retail, he said, which is a huge loss to the teaching profession.

“When a good teacher leaves town … it impacts the whole community,” he said.