Jordan Chesler is a rural middle school counselor in New Plymouth. She commutes 90 miles round trip every school day from Nampa, straining an already limited budget with an additional $160 of gas expenses every month.

“I chose to be out here because I see the need,” said Chesler. “Without a school counselor, there would be a lot of kids without access to mental health counseling.”

Three years ago, she earned her master’s degree and started working in New Plymouth. Simultaneously, she started making payments on her $71,000 in student loans. Initially, her monthly payments were $800. Because her teacher’s salary was so low, she qualified for a payment reduction bringing her monthly bill down to $400. But that didn’t cover the principal payment and now interest on her student loans have mounted and Jordan owes $80,000.

When we look at Idaho’s struggling education system, it is people like Jordan I worry about. The data we see makes it very clear: Our rural districts are not meeting acceptable standards. I worry we are not attracting or retaining teachers in rural Idaho.

I worry about the negative impact this is having on our children and communities. Many of the schools in rural Idaho have empty classrooms because they are without a teacher. I worry about young teachers and counselors like Jordan who are forced by financial necessity to seek better paying positions in urban school districts or in other states.

Creating opportunity in Idaho begins and ends with investment in our educational system — from kindergarten to high school and beyond. Without an adequate educational framework, we are not offering our students or teachers opportunities to grow or prosper. Investment in education relates directly to the quality of life for all Idahoans. If one element of our school system is not meeting the needs of students and expectations of parents or is not successfully preparing students for the next step, the entire system is out of balance.

Per capita, Idaho is the fastest growing state in the country. We are seeing and will continue to see an increase in student enrollment. At the same time, teachers are disappearing. The vacancies created by their departures remain unfilled. I worry about that.

A recent article from a legislative journal said teachers in the U.S. are working longer hours than their international counterparts, and for less pay. Among other states in the Northwest and Intermountain West, Idaho teacher pay is at the bottom.

If our rural schools are shedding certified teachers at an alarming rate, how do we demonstrate to educators how satisfying the teaching experience can be and the opportunities that exist for them in rural communities?

If we cannot offer competitive wages, then perhaps we can offer other incentives that would help them plug the holes in their monthly budgets and enable them to actually live where they work.

This is precisely why I am drafting a bill to offer rural teachers forgiveness on their federal student loans. I’m proposing the State of Idaho take management of this federal program and offer forgiveness of $3,000 for each year a new teacher remains in a rural school district. Teachers could benefit from this incentive for up to four years, or $12,000 in total debt relief.

For young working families willing to make a life in one of our rural Idaho communities and willing to take on the important work of educating our children and grandchildren, this loan forgiveness would be as good as a pay raise.

Everyone benefits in this scenario: rural schools would receive a commitment from teachers wishing to take advantage of this opportunity, and Idaho’s financial assistance would help educators use their knowledge and adventurous spirit where it is needed most. Ultimately, this loan forgiveness could mean fewer empty classrooms and more eager students learning from talented, skilled and dedicated teachers like Jordan Chesler. With quality teachers making a home in rural Idaho and seeing to the educational needs of our children and grandchildren, I’d worry a lot less.

Sally Toone of Gooding represents District 26 in the Idaho Legislature.