Tester lauds new legislation benefiting public schools

by Marga Lincoln

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.

He promised to work in Congress to get the REST Act passed. It’s been referred to the Senate Education Committee.
He also focused on new federal legislation that recently became law.

“It would be an understatement to say that No Child Left Behind was a failure,” he said. The new education bill, ESSA, provides more local control and “passed with an overwhelming number of votes.”

One key thing it does is replace the annual statewide test for highschoolers with the ACT or SAT, thus reducing the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests.

“It moves us away from some of the failed high-stakes testing we have come to know,” he added. It also includes a Tester amendment for the Department of Education to work with local stakeholders in developing rules and regulations.

And it has provisions for Montana to get more funding for professional development for teachers and administrators.

“Unfortunately, there are folks in Montana and Congress who do not see the value of public education,” said Tester, and they fail to see the link from successful public education to vibrant local economies.

The middle class has been shrinking rather than growing, he said.

On a local level, these are the people who vote down school mill levies and bonds, he said, and in Congress they fail to provide adequate funding for educational “reforms.”

Important programs like Title 1 and Impact Aid have gotten flat-funded over the past few years, he said.

“When people talk reform without resources, what they’re really trying to do is starve public education,” he said. “They want to turn our schools … over to private hands.

“So we have some work to do,” he said, “educating folks about the value of public education.

He urged those present to resist attacks being made on public education by speaking up in the community about its value.
Tester comes from a family that values public education, he said.

“They believed that bringing kids together from diverse backgrounds in one classroom was a good thing for the community and for society. It fostered creativity; open minds; innovation; success; and maybe most important, tolerance. They knew that an uneducated society cannot support democracy, and it cannot.

“We cannot maintain our place in the world as a world leader if we do not value public education.”