SUMMARY: Teachers are the crucial element in education. That's why Montana's increasing difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers looms as a crisis.

Crisis looms for Montana's public schools. The ranks of Montana's teachers grow grayer with each passing year. More and more teachers are nearing retirement, while others are bailing out of the profession. And the state's school districts are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain good teachers.

The Legislature packed up and went home this spring without doing anything likely to reverse these trends. Meanwhile, the federal education reforms championed by President Bush promise to do little other than help Montanans document what almost certainly will be a downward spiral in the quality of our schools.

Sixty percent of Montana teachers are aged 45 or older; nearly 40 percent are at least 50. Just 10 percent are younger than 34. According to the Teachers Retirement System, the number of teachers retiring increased 85 percent over the past decade. A study commissioned by a state Board of Education advisory council predicts there'll be nearly 1,300 teaching jobs to fill next year, with the potential for the number to increase in coming years, as more teachers become eligible for retirement. The number of teaching positions to fill will grow, even after adjusting for declining enrollment.

Meanwhile, at a recent job fair at the University of Montana, recruiters for in-state school districts could have been mistaken for a gathering of Maytag repairmen. Recruiters from out-of-state schools are finding it's easy pickings among Montana's best and brightest teaching grads. Montana's schools find it difficult to compete with the attractive salaries, four-figure signing bonuses, loan-repayment programs and other benefits that other states are offering. There's a growing national teacher shortage, and other states have already tuned into the need to be competitive.

What'll really make your head spin is to realize just how quickly Montana lost its ability to compete for teachers. In 1983, Montana ranked 27th in the nation for average teacher pay, paying 95 percent of the national average. Last year, Montana ranked 47th in the nation, paying just 77 percent of the national average. Montana teachers now make, on average, nearly $10,000 a year less than teachers make nationally. A Federation of Teachers union study published this week ranks Montana with Mississippi and North Dakota, smack at the bottom in terms of teachers' pay.

You can't solve every education problem with money. But you can't solve any education problem without decent teachers. Filling teaching jobs is just part of the challenge. Teaching is a difficult, challenging profession. Good teachers aren't always easy to find, at any price. Unless Montana can regain some degree of competitiveness, few of the best teachers will be teaching Montana students.

A downward spiral in the quality of teachers could have profound and long-lasting ramifications, affecting what kids learn and their later success in life; affecting the quality of life for families and communities; affecting Montana's ability to educate and train a top-notch workforce; and affecting the state's ability to retain employers - to say nothing of its ability to recruit new ones.

Montana has lost tremendous ground in relatively little time when it comes to competitiveness for teachers. Reversing the trend won't be easy, cheap or quickly done. But the longer we wait, the harder the challenge becomes.

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