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The state is re-launching two programs that will allow teachers to enroll in college classes tuition free.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Louisiana Board of Regents signed off on the plans last week.

The state Department of Education soon will offer applications for the assistance, with the first tuition-free classes available for the fall semester.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, the Legislature's top advocate for science, technology, math and engineering classes, said better educated teachers will improve the state's dismal record for producing high school seniors ready for the high-demand fields.

Only 14 percent of students are academically prepared to tackle college science, engineering and other classes, she told the boards.

"We have a lot of work to do to provide our students with the skills they need," Hewitt said. "To have a better educated workforce and have more STEM-ready students it starts with the teachers.

"So you have to have the classes available and you have to have teachers capable of teaching those classes," said Hewitt, an engineer herself who has been mentioned as a 2019 gubernatorial possibility.

The BESE Tuition Program for Teachers, which was shelved in 2010 amid state budget problems, is expected to serve about 100 public and private school teachers initially.

But if the dollars become available, a few thousand teachers likely will pursue tuition free graduate and undergraduate classes, state Superintendent of Education John White told the boards.

"The minute you open up the opportunity, you are going to run into a waiting list," White told a rare, joint meeting of BESE and regents. "I do think there will be significant interest."

In addition, the state Board of Regents will oversee a second program, first launched 25 years ago, that allows teachers to enroll in college classes if space is available.

Teachers have to first be turned down for the BESE plan to qualify for the Classroom Teacher Enrollment Program.

Jeanne Burns, associate commissioner for teacher and leadership initiatives, said in flusher times, the state was spending millions of dollars per year for teachers to earn advanced degrees, add to their certifications or help address shortage areas.

"We have received feedback from the campuses and they are very supportive of restarting this," Burns told the two boards.

Once the state Department of Educations starts getting applications, they will be scored by state officials, with STEM classes one of the priorities.

Teachers have to say why they are enrolling and get approval from their school districts.

They can sign up for online or in-person college classes.

The offer will be advertised on the department's website and in district and charter school newsletters.

The initial funds, about $25,000, will come from oil and gas revenue that is part of a deal struck decades ago between the state and federal governments.

How the state Department of Education fares in the budget — the subject of an ongoing special session — will determine whether and how much more is made available for teachers. Those who pursue the space-available program can pursue up to six semester hours per semester.

For the spring semester, LSU charged students $1,621 for six hours.

Fees are not covered in the BESE and Regents programs.

Teachers who go through the Regents program have to attend classes on campus. They will know if class space is available after the final day for students to add or subtract courses.

The revival of both programs stems in part from the 29-member LaSTEM Advisory Council, which was created by a Hewitt-sponsored bill.

"Both of these programs are going to be very important so teachers have an opportunity to continue to learn and take it back to their students," Hewitt said.

Teachers return to college for a variety of reasons, including career advancement.

Some teaching certificates require advanced coursework.

Those with graduate degrees or university teaching experience often get priority for teaching high school dual enrollment courses, said Keith Courville, executive director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana. Dual enrollment allows high school students to also earn college credit.

In an email, Courville said he is "beyond happy" about the revival of the two programs.

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said tuition-free classes should be available for all teachers who handle core subjects.

"I have seen, especially among young teachers, when they go back for advanced coursework they come out better educators," Meaux said.

Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, also praised the effort. “I think any time teachers are given the opportunity to further their education, and specifically in the STEM fields, it is a benefit to the students they teach, and to the schools and communities they live and work in," Carter said in an email.

Hewitt said the push is part of an effort to coordinate and enhance Louisiana's place in the science, technology and math world. The current setup, she said, "is almost like a group of people out in the ocean swimming just as hard as they can."

"But we are not all headed in the same direction, and we are not going to land the boat if we do not work in a more strategic way," Hewitt said.


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.