Program targets teacher scarcities with loan relief

Up to $5,000 would be granted to teachers who choose to work in underserved areas.

by Kevin Beckman

To address statewide teacher shortages, a new state program aims to incentivize educators with student loan assistance.

The Minnesota Teacher Shortage Student Loan Repayment Program was crafted by the state legislature in 2015 and signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton. The program, created in part by Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, and Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, provides loan forgiveness to individuals who have completed their licensure and are considering teaching in areas with teacher shortages.

 “Minnesota schools are finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain teachers both in geographic areas and some subject areas, such as special education, math and science,” said Larry Pogemiller, commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, which is managing the program. 

“By helping with student loan payments, this program may encourage some teachers to consider working in one of the designated shortage areas,” Pogemiller said. 

Qualifying teachers who apply by June 30 would be eligible for as much as $1,000 student loan repayment assistance per year — up to a total of $5,000. 

Applicants of the program must  hold a current teaching license issued by the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Board of Teaching, be employed by a school district to provide classroom instruction, teach in a designated teacher shortage area and have outstanding student loan debt. 

Megan FitzGibbon, who heads the program, said about 1,980 teachers applied for the program in the 2015-16 school year.  The Office of Higher Education estimates that 194 of those teachers could be offered assistance.  

FitzGibbon said teacher shortage areas apply to specific fields of teaching as well as geographical location, especially rural corners of the state.

“We do need help in recruiting and incentivizing new teachers throughout the state, but especially in rural districts,” said Joe Gould, legislative affairs specialist for the Minnesota Rural Education Association. 

FitzGibbon said that though rural areas of the state are experiencing the strongest teacher shortages, most other areas of the state also lack sufficiently trained teachers, including the Twin Cities metro area. 

“It’s not just the corners of the state, or not just the urban areas,” FitzGibbon said. 

Teachers who have obtained necessary licenses in emotional behavioral disorders, early childhood special education and English as a second language are among the scarcest educators in the state, according to a report by the Minnesota Department of Education. 

A 2016 report by the Minnesota School Boards Association cites chemistry, physics, math and Spanish as other subject areas lacking qualified teachers.

The report determined that 80 percent of school administrators in the state said it was difficult to fill vacant teaching positions for the 2015-16 school year, and that 7 percent of the workforce had been given special permission to teach their subject or grade level despite lacking necessary licensure. 

“Regardless of where you work in the state, it’s really hard for any school district or school to get licensed in particular fields,” FitzGibbon said. “When you think about teacher shortage areas, you have to think about it in … the area of the state and … the specific fields or disciplines that they might be teaching.” 

A 2016 report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor found that teacher licensure is also a contributing factor to the shortages, stating that Minnesota’s complex and mutable licensure requirements — which are often misunderstood by teacher candidates — complicate the process of filling open teaching positions.

FitzGibbon said the program stands out from OHE’s other initiatives, which typically offer grant scholarships for current students. 

“This is kind of a different program for our agency to do,” FitzGibbon said. “It could be a way to recruit new people into the teaching profession or into particular disciplines of teaching, and at the same time, current teachers who may be considering whether they’re going to continue teaching. … This may be a way to retain them.”