Tester plugs bill for teacher shortage, veterans education

by Matt Hoffman, Billings Gazette

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester rolled out a proposal to bolster higher education opportunities for veterans and plugged a pair of bills targeting rural teacher shortages at Montana State University Billings on Monday.

The Rural Educator Support and Training Act and the Native Educator Support and Training Act were first introduced by Tester in 2015. Both acts provide targeted scholarships and loan forgiveness for teachers.

Montana has more schools that the federal government classifies as “remote” than any other state. As talk of a national teacher shortage revved up last year, small schools that have struggled to recruit and retain teachers for years say it’s become even more difficult. Reservation schools struggle more than most other rural schools.

“I’ve seen the problems they have from every level, especially in rural communities,” said Tester, who previously was a teacher and school board member in Big Sandy.

The financial incentives would likely have a disproportionately large effect in Montana, where new teachers are paid worse than any other state, especially in rural areas.

However, the proposals have failed to gain traction. Tester said he would try to attach them to larger bills and pitch them to Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate education committee.

“The key is floor time,” he said.

He was optimistic that the veterans proposal – the Education Development for Troops and Veterans Act – could get tacked on to a likely revision of veterans health care programs.

The bill aims to tweak GI Bill benefits to make them more accessible and increase with tuition costs; lets service members defer student loans during pre-deployment training; and creates a grant program to help colleges start veterans education centers.

“It’s our duty to make sure they maximize the benefits they earned while serving our country,” Tester said. “This legislation will help service members reach their full potential.”

Tester is the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, but the Republican Party’s congressional majority extends to committees as well.