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2024 Montana Primary elections

School enrollment drops; Teacher pay program falters

Empty school classroom
iStock

New data show a dip in public school enrollment for the first time since the start of the pandemic

New statewide data show a dip in public school enrollment for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Office of Public Instruction reports Montana’s K-12 student count declined last fall by more than 1% since the start of the 2022 school year.

State funding for public schools is partially tied to enrollment counts and the education agency reports the decline impacted one in five school budgets this academic year.

Montana’s student count steadily declined from 1996 to 2011, then gradually improved prior to the pandemic.

State education officials said they need to collect more data to determine the causes of this year’s enrollment dip.

Data show a decline in schools participating in a program to improve new teacher pay

State education officials shared new data this week that show a decline in schools participating in a program intended to improve pay for new teachers.

Lawmakers intended the 2021 TEACH Act to incentivize districts to raise starting teacher pay to make the state more competitive for new educators, which are in short supply. The law offers schools additional state funding if they boost new teacher salaries to a set benchmark.

While lawmakers said the jury is still out on the policy’s success, the Office of Public Instruction reports fewer schools are benefiting from the additional funding.

More than 100 public schools in Montana used the program in its first year. But, the Office of Public Instruction reports fewer than half that many are set to participate in the coming school year.

Montana Association of School Business Officials Director Shelley Turner said the confusing and shifting messaging from the state education department may have led administrators to miss this year’s application deadline.

“It’s very complicated and hard,” Turner said. “And so, we’re feeling a little bit like we’re on shifting quicksand, trying to get our schools the funding they need.”

Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rob Stutz said the agency provides many training opportunities for districts on complying with the policy.

Lawmakers were told the agency believes the decline may be due to districts struggling to keep up with the pay increases required to qualify for the program.

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing austin.amestoy@umt.edu.
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