Earlier this legislative session, elected representatives from both parties approved tweaks to a student loan payment program designed to attract teachers to rural schools. 

Paying for the program is another matter. 

The Quality Educator Loan Assistance Program is unfunded in the current budget approved by the Montana Senate on Tuesday. About 170 educators were paid $492,339 for the 2015-2016 school year through the program, and the program got a $1 million allocation over the past two years. 

The program is aimed at getting more qualified educators in Montana schools, especially in rural areas. Many of Montana's isolated schools struggle to recruit and retain teachers, and Montana pays beginning teachers worse than any other state in the country. If schools are consistently churning through rookie teachers, or even veterans, it can hurt student achievement

At Centerville schools, which enroll about 250 students southeast of Great Falls, superintendent John McGee said several teachers have used the loan repayment program in recent years. But he said that low salaries — common among rural districts — still turn many potential applicants away. 

“They said, 'In all honesty, it’s the money. I’ve got student loans that could choke a horse,'” McGee said. 

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen on the campaign trail last fall said that rural recruitment and retention was her "number one issue." She also vowed to "depoliticize" her elected post by not advocating for most legislative issues.

In an emailed statement, she praised changes made to the program earlier this session that expanded eligibility for the program like including special education cooperatives and youth correctional facilities.

"With difficult budget constraints this biennium, hopefully funding will come for the loan forgiveness aspect of the program in a future biennium when the state is in a better position fiscally," she said. "It is important that rural school districts have resources to attract and retain quality teachers."  

While the program benefits K-12 teachers, it's administered by the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, which is in line for major budget cuts that could result in a spike in tuition costs. The loan repayment program funding has been allocated as one-time-only funding in the past, meaning that it didn't roll over from one legislative cycle to another. Many previous one-time-only requests have been left empty as legislators grapple with a revenue pinch.  

Teacher recruitment and retention was a major focus of an interim school funding commission that looked at a variety of education issues last fall, and the bill passed earlier this session reflects some of the commission's recommendations. 

The changes to the program helped beef up its recruiting value, and payments are now $3,000 in year one, $4,000 in year two and $5,000 in year three. The program previously paid $3,000 each year for four years. In theory the back-loaded payment encourages teachers to stay several years, instead of leaving after one or two years. 

McGee recalled meeting with other local superintendents and realizing that they were interviewing the same two or three applicants for their jobs. 

“It was like, are you kidding me? Is the market really this depressed?” he said. “We talked about the fact that something has to change ... We’re about ready to have to bite the bullet and do a sign-on bonus.”

A handful of Montana districts offer such bonuses or other financial incentives. But they do so by spending money that could otherwise go toward new textbooks or computers. Pulling state money for loan repayment hurts schools like Centerville, McGee said. 

"We need all the carrots we can get to attract quality people," McGee said.