As a former public school student, teacher, and school board member, I understand the power of public education. It’s critical to our economy, our democracy, and our future, and I know just how great our schools are when we give students and educators the tools they need to succeed.

That’s why I fight, day in and day out, for Montana’s teachers, students, and administrators.

As a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, I work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to invest in critical education initiatives. As a result, this year we were able to secure $1.4 billion for Federal Impact Aid, $15 billion in Title I funding, $2 billion in Title II funding, $1 billion in Title IV funding, $1.2 billion for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, and $12 billion in Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funding. I also fought hard to reauthorize Secure Rural Schools program funding, which expired in 2015, reducing payments to Montana counties by 85 percent and forcing county governments to make difficult budget decisions.

Keeping our schools properly funded is critical because administrators can’t support students, supply classrooms, or hire teachers without the right resources. But funding isn’t the only obstacle to keeping our classrooms running. Schools across Montana are having difficulty hiring teachers in every subject, from music to math.

That’s why I’ve introduced the Rural Educator Support and Training (REST) Act and the Native Educator Support and Training (NEST) Act—to help recruit more teachers, principals, and superintendents to schools across Montana. This legislation will incentivize educators to work in rural communities by offering scholarships, loan forgiveness, and grants to help pay for national board certification.

It’s not just teachers we need. Our schools have become a primary health care provider for an increasing number of students, but only four Montana counties meet the recommended nurse-to-student ratio. Half of all Montana counties don’t have any school nurses at all. That’s why I’ve also introduced a bill to help Montana’s rural and underserved schools hire school nurses, because keeping students healthy is crucial to making sure they can learn.

Every student has a unique set of needs, experiences, and capabilities that affect their classroom experience. It’s our job to make sure these things never prevent them from getting a quality public education.

When Congress passed IDEA more than 40 years ago, it promised to cover 40 percent of the cost of special education. That hasn’t happened. In fact, federal funding for IDEA currently hovers around 16 percent. Unfunded federal mandates handcuff our local school districts, draining their already limited resources and chipping away at local control. So, I introduced the IDEA Full Funding Act, which will require the federal government to pay its fair share of IDEA costs (40 percent), putting control of critical resources back in the hands of local teachers, principals, and administrators.

Restoring local control is key because teachers, parents, and administrators know their children best. That’s why, when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2016, I fought tooth and nail to ensure local control was a part of that legislation. Since then, the administration might have changed, but my commitment to local control never will. That’s why I brought up this issue when I met with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos before her confirmation hearing last year, and I’ve continued to make sure she’s following through on her responsibility to Montana’s students, teachers, and administrators.

The bottom line is this: When we invest in our public schools, we invest in our future. And as a senator, I will continue fighting to make sure our schools have every opportunity to succeed.

Jon Tester (D) is a U.S. senator from Montana.

Sidebar: New Legislation

Sen. Jon Tester has proposed two bills to encourage educators to work in rural communities:

The Rural Educator Support and Training Act (REST) Act

This bill amends the Higher Education Act of 1965 and the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965. It proposes:

  • ED shall award undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships to students studying to become educators in rural schools.
  • ED may also award grants to eligible educational agencies for the purpose of (1) reimbursing eligible rural educators for out-of-pocket costs associated with obtaining National Board certification and (2) increasing annual compensation for eligible rural educators who have become certified.
  • Rural educators shall also be eligible for additional student loan forgiveness. Specifically, a teacher who is employed for five consecutive years in a rural school shall be eligible for up to $17,500 in federal student loan forgiveness.

The Native Educator Support and Training Act (NEST) Act

This bill amends the Higher Education Act of 1965 to establish scholarships, loan forgiveness plans, and training programs for educators who commit to teaching in Native American or Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools. The bill:

  • Establishes three scholarship programs for students who are seeking degrees in education or in school administration at institutions of higher education and who commit to teaching in Native American or BIE schools:
    • The Indian Student Educator Scholarship Program for students seeking degrees
    • The Indian Educator Scholarship Program for Indian students seeking degrees
    • The Indian Educator Graduate Fellowship Program for Indian students seeking graduate degrees

Recipients of the scholarships must commit to working for a BIE school, a school serving Native Americans, or other specified schools and agencies for the greater of three years or the number of school years that the scholarship funded. The act:

  • Establishes loan forgiveness programs for educators and Native Americans who have taught for at least five consecutive years at BIE schools or local educational agencies with high percentages of Native American students.
  • Extends the federal Perkins Loan Cancellation Program to educators teaching in BIE schools or in Native American language immersion programs.
  • Reimburses educators and Native Americans teaching in BIE schools or local educational agencies with high percentages of Native American students for out-of-pocket expenses associated with becoming National Board certified. In addition, this measure would offer $5,000–$10,000 in increased compensation for each year the recipient of National Board certification remains at the school where the recipient was teaching when National Board certification was received under this grant.
  • Establishes the Native American Language Teacher Training Program to provide grants for institutions of higher education to develop training programs for Native American immersion and language teachers.

*Source: The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education