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story.lead_photo.caption Sen. Cecile Bledsoe

LITTLE ROCK -- According to the state Education Department, there are eight academic subject areas this school year in which Arkansas has a shortage of licensed teachers.

That means qualified teachers and school administrators can take as many as six hours of college level courses to become licensed in those areas, and they will be eligible to receive reimbursements of up to $3,000 from the state Higher Education Department.

Reimbursements can cover tuition, mandatory fees, text books and required supplies for classes.

The deadline to apply for reimbursements is June 1 of every year. These are the critical shortage areas designated by the Education Department for the 2015-2016 school year: gifted and talented classes, foreign languages, library media, mathematics, special education, drama and speech, family and consumer sciences and art.

The legislature first created the program in 1987. Lawmakers expanded it in 2005 with Act 2196, which created the Teacher Opportunity Program (TOP) and the Duel Certification Incentive Program, to provide financial help for teachers who return to college to get licensed in additional subject areas. The school district that employs the teacher is authorized to provide the teacher administrative leave and to help offset the tuition costs.

Another program to offset teacher shortages is the State Teacher Education Program (STEP) , also administered by the Higher Education Department. It helps teachers pay federal student loans of up to $3,000 a year for licensed teachers who work in geographic areas designated as having a critical shortage of teachers, or who teach academic courses designated as having a critical shortage of teachers.

The deadline to apply for STEP grants also is June 1 of every year. To qualify for both TOP and STEP grants, the applicant must have a valid Arkansas teaching license.

The number of people applying to become teachers in Arkansas has declined since 2010, both in traditional and non-traditional preparatory programs. In the traditional teacher preparation programs at public and private colleges the number of enrollees has gone down from 7,067 in 2010 to 3,555 in 2015.

In non-traditional programs the number of applicants has gone from 1,188 in 2010, up to 2,090 in 2013 and down again to 1,703 last year.

A non-traditional program, Teach For America, will add more than 200 new teachers in Arkansas school districts where the overwhelming majority of students are from low-income families.

The governor announced that he would release $3 million from a discretionary fund to hire 150 new teachers through Teach For America. They will work in rural school districts in eastern and southern Arkansas where 86 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or discounted lunches.

The expenditure will be matched by another $3 million from private businesses and philanthropic groups, which will be used to hire 65 teachers in the Little Rock School District. It will be the first time teachers prepared by Teach For America will work in the Little Rock district, which has been taken over by the state because of deficiencies on test scores at six schools.

The 150 new teachers hired from the governor's discretionary fund will teach about 9,000 students in rural Arkansas. The 65 teachers in Little Rock will have about 4,000 students, and will work in subject areas of highest need.


Editor's note: Arkansas Senator Cecile Bledsoe represents the third district. From Rogers, Sen. Bledsoe is chair of the Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee and vice chair of Senate Efficiency; ALC-JBC budget hearings, Joint Budget Committee; Joint Budget Committee, pre-fiscal session budget hearings; JBC, personnel; State & Public School Life & Health Insurance task force; Insurance & Commerce, Senate; Legislative joint auditing; Legislative Joint Auditing, educational institutions; Legislative Joint Auditing, Medicaid subcommittee; and Community Services Oversight & Planning Council.

Editorial on 02/03/2017

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