Higher education bills are in the home stretch; legislation to slim TOPS costs on deck _lowres

Joseph Rallo, the commissioner of higher education.

A plan to overhaul the way teachers are trained in Louisiana got a major boost Friday when higher education leaders said they would back the effort after months of criticism.

The key feature of the changes, which could make the state a national leader, would be a requirement that aspiring teachers go through a one-year residency teaching students  as college seniors.

"Oftentimes the first-year teacher feels overwhelmed, not sufficiently prepared," said Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo.

Better prepared teachers, backers say, will mean improved student achievement in a state where classroom achievement has lagged for generations.

The key concern of college and university leaders has been costs of the overhaul, especially amid budget problems and repeated cuts in state aid for higher education.

Rallo said in an interview that he is "comfortable and confident" in how the changes will be financed, which is supposed to include both state and federal dollars.

State Superintendent of Education John White, the top advocate of the overhaul, has said the three-year roll out can be done for $7.5 million and that those funding sources have been identified.

Beyond that, state officials said, a $67 million federal grant announced earlier this week and $2.2 million per year in other federal funds for mentors is supposed to ease concerns.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which sets policies for more than 700,000 public school students statewide, delayed action on the proposal in June because of higher education concerns, including costs.

Leaders of school boards, teacher and principal organizations also raised concerns.

However, the issue is back on BESE's agenda Tuesday and officials of the state Board of Regents are expected to be on board.

A committee of BESE is expected to approve the changes, as well as the full board on Wednesday.

The new rules have been discussed by state leaders since 2010, and pilot projects were launched in 2014.

The concept of boosting time student teachers spent in the classroom from about one to two semesters has long had wide appeal, including from higher education leaders.

White's lieutenants often note that, according to a 2014 survey, half of about 6,000 teachers quizzed said they were ill-prepared for their first teaching assignment.

But criticism on costs and other issues has surfaced repeatedly, including a request by the Special Education Advisory Panel, which advises BESE, to delay action on the issue next  week in favor of more talks.

Some educators call the proposed overhaul radical.

Others said it would discourage students from entering the teaching profession, which already faces daunting retirement numbers in Louisiana and nationally.

Some local superintendents last month called the move risky.

White has said the new rules could take effect for the freshman class of 2018.

A timeline is supposed to be discussed at a meeting on Oct. 31.

White said last month that the $7.5 million in initial costs includes $1,000 annual stipends for mentors and $2,000 for student teachers.

Students could also earn another $1,600 per year if they served as temporary substitutes, according to Hannah Dietsch, assistant superintendent for talent.

A report on costs of the changes is set  for release next week.

The Board of Regents will reach out to professional groups to find veteran teachers to serve as mentors, according to an email Friday written by Jeanne Burns, associate commissioner for Teacher and Leadership Initiatives.

"If these funds are successful in creating programs that attract more undergraduate students who are immediately hired by school districts due to their immediate success with PK-12 students, it will be a win-win for higher education and for PK-12 schools in Louisiana," Burns said. PK-12 refers to pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Rallo said the rigor of teacher training has been an issue for years, including when his parents taught in New York City half a century ago.

"It is not just Louisiana," he said. "This is a national trend."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.