Loan forgiveness bill could ease teacher shortage

by Sarah Lenz

For students who are pursuing a teaching career, there could soon be a new loan forgiveness program to help with paying back college debt — if they choose to work in certain Minnesota areas.
To address a shortage of teachers, state officials are considering a proposal that incentivizes working in rural and other areas of Minnesota. If it’s passed before the legislative session ends in May, the change would offer those licensed teachers up to $3,000 per year for five years to go toward their student loans.
Jacob Orren, an agriculture education junior at the University of Minnesota, said he wants to teach agriculture in a rural area of the state. But because of his high student loans — and typically low starting salaries for new teachers — he said he may be pressured to find employment elsewhere.
In 2012, the average starting salary for a teacher in Minnesota was $34,505. Jacob said he might consider a higher-paying job in the agriculture sector.
“If I could forgive some of my loans, it would make the decision to stay in teaching a lot easier,” he said.
Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, who authored the bill, said she spoke with community members in her hometown, Albert Lea, Minn., about teacher shortages before drafting the legislation. She said they told her the town’s high school couldn’t find a person to teach English classes.
“There is a definite shortage [there],” Bennett said, who is a retired school teacher.
Some schools in the state are having difficulties filling vacant positions in subject areas like special education, chemistry and math, according to a January report by the Minnesota Department of Education.
“Many schools are having trouble filling positions in certain licensure fields,” Bennett said. “But some schools are having trouble finding teachers period.”
She said to address health care shortages in rural Minnesota, a similar loan forgiveness program has been effective in recruiting and retaining those types of professionals.
The legislation would appropriate funding to the state’s Office of Higher Education for managing the loan forgiveness program. State officials would identify areas where there are teacher shortages and offer the program to newly licensed teachers working in those locations. 
Joe Gould, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Rural Education Association, said teacher shortages is an issue that isn’t being addressed adequately. 
“There is a silent teacher crisis across the state,” he said.
An MREA survey of 22 Northwestern Minnesota school districts last year found of the area’s 125 unfilled teaching positions, there was anywhere from zero to two applicants for special education and high school science teaching positions.
Other states, such as North Dakota and South Dakota, have similar loan forgiveness programs. In North Dakota, licensed teachers can apply for up to $1,000 each year they teach in areas with shortages.
The Minnesota bill, which has received bipartisan support, has passed various committees in both the House and the Senate, and Bennett said its likelihood of passing is high.
“Hopefully, this program will encourage young teachers who are going to school to zero in on shortage areas,” she said.