Student teachers leaving Montana for greener pastures

Teacher-in-training Brenda Pieros was a bundle of energy
Wednesday, showing kindergartners how to kick a soccer
ball, getting kids to dance, shaking her maracas and smiling
all the while.

By GAIL SCHONTZLER Chronicle Staff Writer

"I love ’em," Pieros, 32, said of the children. "I want to
make a difference in one student’s life."

If she can do that, she said, "my job is worth it. I certainly
don’t do it for the pay."

Yet when she graduates, Pieros won’t be teaching children
in a Montana classroom. Like scores of other education
majors at Montana State University, she’s planning to leave
the state.

"I was thinking of staying in Montana," said Alan Smola,
another elementary education major. "Everyone’s friendly
… you can still leave your door unlocked, you know your neighbors. It’s the way I grew up, the
way I’d like my kids to grow up."

But Smola said he will have $30,000 in student loans to pay off by the time he graduates. He
plans to head for California, where a beginning teacher can earn $27,000 to $35,000, about
50 percent more than the $18,000 to $22,000 starting pay in Montana.

That Montana is losing many of its best student teachers is one of the key points education
leaders plan to make tonight at a "Stand Up for Education" meeting in Bozeman.

Ten such meetings are being held around the state to show support for boosting state funding
for public schools and higher education.

"We’re hoping for a large turnout for people to hear the facts about the crisis in state funding for
education," said Pam Bredberg, president of the Bozeman teachers union. "Many veteran
teachers are retiring. Few education graduates are staying."

Montana teachers point to their pay ranking 48th in the nation as cause for alarm. University
System officials will also be making a pitch that the state needs to invest in higher education if
it hopes to attract businesses and jobs. The state’s funding of University System costs has fallen
from 73 to 49 percent in the past decade, while student tuition has doubled.

However, one of the target audiences for the message — candidates for the Legislature — isn’t
necessarily buying it.

"I don’t believe there’s a funding crisis in K-12," said Ken Nordtvedt, a Republican running for
Sen. Don Hargrove’s old seat.

Nordtvedt said from 1994 to 2001, total statewide spending per pupil has increased 10 percent,
when adjusted for inflation. The real problem, he said, is that schools haven’t trimmed their
spending as student enrollment has declined.

"The state can’t keep paying them for students they’re not teaching," he said.

Nordtvedt said Montana taxpayers are paying the same proportion of their income toward
teacher salaries as residents of wealthier states pay.

Not all student teachers are leaving Montana. Glen Steinhoff, a 22-year-old from Shelby, said
he plans to look for a teaching job in Montana, despite his $14,000 student loan debt.

"I was born and raised here," Steinhoff said. "I don’t know any place as nice."

MSU’s education department has no statistics on how many of the 250 students who graduate
each year stay in Montana. A year ago, the Missoulian reported that 70 percent of new
teachers trained at the University of Montana leave. Robert Clemens, MSU field placement
director, said his gut feeling is around 60 percent of MSU student teachers leave. If so, that
would be higher than the average of 50 percent among all MSU majors.

Though he disagrees with educators, Nordtvedt said he plans to attend tonight’s meeting:
"Education is the budget gorilla of state government."

The meeting will be held at Emily Dickinson Elementary School from 7 to 8 p.m.

Gail Schontzler is at [email protected]

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