Lawmakers aim to revive teacher loan program

Wyoming has been searching for ways to strengthen its teacher ranks as shortages and growing discontentment among educators impact the state.

The Wyoming Department of Education and Professional Teaching Standards Boards, the state’s independent teacher licensing body, have been developing an apprenticeship program to expand the local educator pipeline, while the University of Wyoming’s College of Education established a Teacher-Mentor Corps last year to support early-career teachers.

Rep. Bill Henderson, R-Cheyenne, and a cohort of lawmakers are looking to step in and aid those efforts by reviving and expanding the state’s teacher shortage loan repayment program.

House Bill 167 would restart the program, which allowed prospective teachers enrolled in UW’s College of Education to obtain loans from the state and repay them by teaching in Wyoming public schools.

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Previously, only special education, math, science and foreign language teachers qualified for the loan and loan forgiveness initiative, but Henderson and the bill’s co-sponsors plan to open the program to all College of Education students interested in teaching in Wyoming.

Teachers who return to UW in pursuit of additional qualifications, such as endorsements to teach in specialty areas, are also eligible for the loans.

“We’ve opened it up to anyone who wants to teach really, but we’re targeting shortage areas,” Henderson said.

As it did previously, the Wyoming Community College Commission would oversee the program, and each year it would have to report to the governor and Legislature about the impact the program is having on the state’s teacher shortages.

In addition to helping the state address shortages, the program will support teachers in their own professional development, including those who may leave another profession to teach, Henderson said.

“I think it’s going to offer a lot of people options,” Henderson said. “If you have options, you’re more able to set up to your own path [and] the way that you want to proceed in your career.”

“It’s a win-win,” he said.

Lawmakers first created loan repayment program in 2005. It lasted more than a decade before being phased out in 2016.

In its first four years, more than 100 students participated, even though they were limited to training in science, mathematics, foreign language or special education, according to UW.

Students could also choose repay their loans, but by the end of the program in 2016 almost 160 Wyoming teachers had had their loans forgiven, Henderson said.

Approximately 45% of all teachers in Wyoming attended UW, according to Wyoming Department of Education data.

So far, Henderson’s bill is the only legislation lawmakers have brought forward that would directly address teacher shortages in Wyoming.

It would set aside $500,000 from the state’s reserve account to restart the program and finance student loans beginning as soon as this fall.

The Wyoming Education Association, which advocates for the state’s teachers and public K-12 schools, threw its weight behind the bill.

“Teachers are educated, certified professionals. Their investment in their education opens the door for them to work in Wyoming public schools, and that work shapes and betters our schools and communities,” Grady Hutcherson, the president of the Wyoming Education Association, said in an email.

Hutcherson also pointed to program as a much needed sign of support from lawmakers as teachers feel the impacts of an increasingly polarized political climate.

“Wyoming teachers are reporting low levels of job satisfaction, low levels of respect from their communities and low levels of perceived support from state officials and lawmakers,” Hutcherson said. “This bill is one step in the right direction toward respecting our teachers and encouraging them to live, work, and contribute to our Wyoming communities by teaching in our public schools.”

While Henderson’s bill would tackle the financial constraints prospective teachers face, its broader impact in addressing the state’s teacher shortages is unclear.

A study by UW researcher Mark Perkins and the Wyoming Education Association found that it was not money but mental health and a lack of support that was driving Wyoming’s teachers to consider leaving the profession.

Still, it’s time that lawmakers consider reauthorizing the loan repayment program to tackle teacher shortages, Henderson said.

“It’s definitely going to help Wyoming,” he said.

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