Caitlin Efta's path to becoming a teacher began with helping her younger siblings with homework, navigating their daily hurdles and cheering them on from the front row at all of their sporting events.

This passion led her to pursue a career in teaching when she left for college. But the journey hasn't been easy. The financial burden of unpaid teaching experiences, often far from home, has forced Efta and many of her peers to question their fate as educators.

"It's just a lot of hard work, a lot of late nights and long hours," said Efta, a 22-year-old senior majoring in integrated elementary and special education at the University of Minnesota Duluth. "There are a lot of people in my major who are dropping out, switching majors or leaving the career entirely, because once we get to this point, a lot of people can't handle the financial burden."

State lawmakers are now proposing a solution — one they believe will help lessen the financial burden on aspiring educators like Efta, encourage more people from underrepresented communities to become teachers and help ease Minnesota's teacher shortage.

The proposed student-teacher pilot program would provide stipends of up to $7,500 to eligible student teachers enrolled in teacher training programs at seven Greater Minnesota colleges and universities, including St. Cloud State University, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College and the University of Minnesota Duluth. If the Legislature approves funding for the program, the 12-week program could launch in the 2024-25 school year and help nearly 900 aspiring educators.

There are approximately 2,300 student teachers in Minnesota each year, according to the Minnesota Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (MACTE).

Teacher shortage

Rep. Matt Norris, DFL-Blaine, the bill's lead author, said he's seeking a one-time appropriation of $7 million from the state general fund. The Legislature agreed to spend $43 million on K-12 schools this year, Norris said, but there are many demands.

"The biggest challenge is going to be making sure that we can find the funding for it even if it's just a one time pilot program set up," Norris said.

The measure is currently in the House Education Finance Committee and is awaiting a vote on the floor. A House and Senate committee will soon convene to negotiate the final version of the bill.

Norris said lawmakers are asking the Professional Educator Licensing Standards Board, which will administer the program, to study the impact of the stipends and report back to the Legislature to gauge whether the plan is meeting its goal. If all goes well, Norris said, they hope to expand the program to provide stipends for student teachers statewide.

Supporters of the stipends say the effort is needed to ease the financial burden on aspiring teachers, which advocates point to as a major contributor to Minnesota's teacher shortage.

But some, including lawmakers, contend the money would be better used to address pension issues for existing teachers, offer year-long paid student teaching programs and boost salaries for lower-paid licensed educators.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, a co-author of the bill, strongly favors an option of a year-long student teaching program, but believes incentivizing student teachers, regardless of the program's duration, can make the teaching profession attractive and help with retention.

"We have shortages of teachers and in some very important areas," said Urdahl, who is currently pushing a separate bill that would provide grants to aspiring educators. "What can we do to encourage people to get into teaching and stay in teaching? I'm looking at [any] avenue that might work."

A 2023 report from the Professional Educator Licensing Standards Board (PELSB) found that the majority of districts across the state are impacted by teacher and substitute shortages, struggling to fill critical positions in areas like special education. It also revealed that nearly a third of new teachers are leaving teaching within the first five years in the profession.

Laura Mogelson, a legislative liaison for MACTE, supports the idea of paid student teaching for a minimum of 12 weeks. She said the state has some grant programs that can support student teachers, but those are competitive and not guaranteed.

Mogelson, who's the director of multiple pathways to teaching at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, also runs year-long student teaching programs. She believes such programs, while not a good fit for every candidate, are a valuable option for developing student teachers and supporting students in the classroom.

"Twelve weeks is very short, but 12 unpaid weeks is a barrier," Mogelson said. "I don't think we should swing in the direction of requiring a year long for all of our 2,300 student teachers because I just don't think that's realistic."

Faraway placements

Efta, the student teacher, serves as president of Education Minnesota Aspiring Educators, which represents about 4,500 prospective teachers across the state. She said stipends would allow those future teachers to focus on their education, classroom responsibilities and career growth.

"What this stipends would do is that it would allow student teachers to not have to work or worry about how they're going to pay for groceries, how they're going to get their rent paid for," Efta said. "That would just alleviate a lot of stress and it would keep a lot of teachers in the profession."

Another barrier for student teachers: classroom placements far from home. Efta's friend, a Minneapolis resident, attends the University of Minnesota Twin Cities but drives at least two hours daily to Sleepy Eye for her student teaching. The U had no alternative placement options available, Efta said.

Efta is currently a student teacher in a first-grade classroom at Lester Park Elementary in Duluth, a 15-minute drive from home. It's the closest placement Efta has had in three years of being assigned to various schools.

"Knowing that there's always going to be some financial burden in my life is a big stressor," Efta said. "But the best thing I could say is, the kids always make it worth it because you can see the difference you're making in the classroom and that's really the thing that keeps a lot of people going."