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Free tuition program for teachers getting underway at state universities

After months of deliberation, state universities are aiming to admit 200 students in the fall 2017 semester to a teacher-training program with free tuition.

Eileen Klein

Eileen Klein

The president of the Arizona Board of Regents, Eileen Klein, said this academic year would be considered a “pilot year” for the program, called the Arizona Teacher Academy. She said each university has individual expectations for the program, but collectively, the universities are looking for candidates “who are going to be dedicated to innovative and impactful teaching, particularly in Arizona.”

The academy is intended to fill vacant teaching positions that have plagued the state for years.

In January, Gov. Doug Ducey called on Arizona’s public universities in his State of the State speech to reduce, if not completely waive, tuition for students pursuing teaching degrees if they committed to teaching in some of Arizona’s high-need schools. He asked the public universities, community colleges and education leaders alike, to band together to create an Arizona Teacher Academy.

The dean of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, Carole Basile, said that while the official blueprint for the program is not yet complete, she expects the academy to develop innovative, dedicated teachers.

Basile said ASU does not yet know who will be selected for the academy this August. However, she did say that general success markers in college, like GPA, and financial need, would be considered when choosing the Teacher Academy’s students.

This fall ASU is primarily looking to enroll seniors in the academy, but Basile said she hopes the program will expand to younger students eventually.

Students who are accepted to the academy will have some, if not all, of their student debt alleviated. Basile said by reducing or eliminating future teachers’ debt, it allows new teachers to “really focus on being a creative educator, and not have to worry about working that second job to pay their student debt.”

Carole Basile

Carole Basile

Basile said she believes that reduced student debt could both entice young Arizonans to become teachers, and encourage them to stay in the profession longer.

Representatives with the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.

As of now, the bulk of the academy’s financial burden falls on the shoulders of the universities themselves. Basile said ASU intends on using reallocated scholarship funds to pay for the academy.

When a student accepts a position in the academy, their tuition debt is alleviated in exchange for a four-year commitment to teaching in an Arizona school, especially high-need schools in rural and urban areas.

Klein said that if students were to take advantage of the academy, and then fail to teach in the state following their graduation, they would be required to pay back the money they were given.

Students enrolled in the Teacher Academy will also have the opportunity to be mentored by experienced teachers. Basile said the program would ideally become “very experiential,” which would more adequately prepare future teachers for the tribulations they will face in the classroom.

Klein said higher education leaders are in final discussions with Ducey, and she looks forward to visit the Legislature next year to ensure the state takes strides to contribute to, and offset the cost of, the Arizona Teacher Academy.

In the meantime, Klein said the universities should be applauded for stepping up to foot the cost of this academy on their own. Basile said that while the average tuition debt for a recently graduated teacher is $22,000, ASU is “very committed to making” the academy happen, regardless of the source of its funding.

However, Basile also said that the academy is merely a “short-term fix for a much bigger education workforce” problem. She hopes the academy will attract the best and brightest future teachers to the education profession for now, but that the way society looks at the career will change.

Basile said leaders in education need to start thinking about credentialing and certification in a different way, one that will surface entrepreneurial, creative and innovative educators with the ability to “think differently about what school could look like for kids.”

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