Battle lines drawn in Arkansas teacher pay raise debate as special session nears
The Palestine-Wheatley School District in St. Francis County will move to a four-day week when students return to school this fall in an attempt to fill its roster of 54 teachers.
Superintendent Jon Estes said the district lost only four teachers last year after the four-day school week decision was announced. One of those teachers moved to northwest Arkansas, where teacher salaries are significantly higher than those in the Estes district.
“We’re competing with Memphis and West Memphis,” Estes said. “If you live between here and West Memphis, do you want to come here and do the state minimum or go to West Memphis and earn an extra $10,000?”
The state’s minimum wage for teachers has become the center of a battle between Democrats, who say the state is at risk of losing teachers to low wages, and Republicans, who argue it’s not the appropriate time for the discussion.
The topic has heated up in recent days as a special legislative session focused on spending the state’s $1.6 billion surplus draws closer. Several lawmakers took to social media to discuss the issue, and a nonpartisan organization, For AR People, launched a petition with plans for a rally on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks.
The Palestine-Wheatley School District is one of more than a dozen districts in the state that pays new teachers the minimum, which is set at $36,000 for the 2022-23 school year. While the state legislature sets the minimum, districts are able to create their own pay scales anywhere at or above that minimum.
The Arkansas Democratic Party has been vocal in the discussion calling for the issue of a pay rise for teachers to be put on the agenda for the special session.
“Teachers and staff have consistently received broken promises,” Dustin Parsons, vice chairman of counties for the Democratic Party, said Friday. “We’re basically asking the Legislative Assembly to sit down and do something now.”
Senate Pro Tempore Chairman Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said Friday the argument is not whether to look at teacher salaries but when to look at them.
“There is no consensus on raising salaries in the special session,” Hickey said. “The reason for that is, first of all, the payroll is going on and it’s excess funds that were largely created by this federal stimulus money, and that’s not going to happen every year. “
He added that the Legislature annually conducts an adequacy study to make data-driven decisions on how and where funds should be spent on education.
The conversation appears to have heated up after Gov. Asa Hutchinson released a proposal in June to raise the state’s minimum wage for teachers and provide a $4,000 pay raise. He also suggested that the proposal could be discussed during the extraordinary session.
Last week, Hutchinson said the proposal would not be discussed during the session, saying he lacked support in the Legislative Assembly.
Hutchinson and Department of Education Secretary Johnny Key previously said providing a competitive salary for educators was a big investment as other surrounding states are making salary increases.
Key mentioned Mississippi, which recently increased its base salary to $41,500 with a $5,000 pay raise.
He also said Arkansas would start next school year behind base salaries in Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi – something Senator Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, tweeted this week. last. Someone responded to his tweet with a photo of a local Dallas Independent School District billboard that advertised salaries between $60,000 and $102,000.
Estes said his district has met with students saying they plan to move to Texas.
Hutchinson’s original plan would raise the current state minimum wage for new teachers to $46,000 next year. Last year, about 30 of the state’s 261 school districts paid a base salary of $40,000, according to Arkansas Department of Education data.
The governor has supported teacher salary increases during their tenure, approving past increases that have increased the minimum over time. The base salary was $29,244 in 2015.
According to data collected by members of the State House and Senate, the state did not see an increase in the minimum wage between 2008 and 2015. After Hutchinson took office in 2015, the minimum has increased every year since with the highest increases of 3.25% and 3.15%. % approved by legislation for fiscal years 2022 and 2023.
Data collected by the National Education Association had Arkansas fourth in minimum wage in the 2020-21 school year, with only Colorado, Missouri and Montana trailing. The national average at that time was $41,770, according to the data.
The $4,000 salary increase would likely bring the average salary in the state to $60,000, Key previously said in an email to the governor’s deputy chief of staff for external operations, Bill Gossage.
The average teacher salary nationwide was $65,000 in the 2020-21 school year, according to a report by the National Education Association. The Arkansas average was $51,000. It was then ranked 46th in the nation, but states have continued to raise salaries since the data was collected.
Hickey argued that the governor’s proposal would cost the state $333 million.
A 1990s court decision in Lake View School District v. Huckabee established a required funding model for the state, Hickey said. Adequacy studies are conducted and reviewed annually by legislative education committees to determine funding.
“I expect that in this matching study there will be a need for salary increases,” Hickey said. “There are all kinds of ideas out there right now on how to fund education.”
Hickey said there was talk of increasing salaries, but also discussing increased benefits for teachers, such as health insurance and pension funds.
Parsons argues that the education system doesn’t have time to wait for January.
“We consistently have underfunded educators across the state,” Parsons said. “It proves that we are not adequately funding our schools. With Mississippi already increasing theirs, we should be able to do the same.”
The state cannot risk losing teachers, Parsons said. He said using surplus funds now would help retain teachers.
According to Kimberly Mundell, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Education, the state does not track teachers who leave the state. However, it tracks the state’s attrition rate — or the percentage of teachers leaving public schools each year.
The state saw about 24% of teachers leave their public school jobs in 2021, the data shows. There were 21% in 2020, 25% in 2019 and 24% in 2018.
For Estes, the difficulty of recruiting and retaining teachers is more complex than just the minimum wage.
“Nobody graduates from the University of Arkansas and dreams of working here in eastern Arkansas,” Estes said.
Asked about the excess special session, Estes said: “I applaud Asa Hutchinson and all he is doing to raise teacher salaries, but I don’t see a clear answer between a small school district versus a large school district. in an urban area.
In northwest Arkansas, the districts offer significantly higher salaries than Estes, but the districts still compete with each other in the region.
The Bentonville School District approved a base salary of $48,755 for the 2022-23 school district in March. The Rogers Public School district’s base salary is $48,000, Fayetteville bumped it up to $50,000, and Springdale tops it at $50,282.
“We definitely have to be careful with recruitment and retention,” said Bentonville Public Schools spokeswoman Leslee Wright. “We are currently working on a teacher recruitment campaign.”
From Bentonville to the Palestine-Wheatly School District, some of the best methods start with recruiting from their own backyard.
Bentonville started a program called “area of study” that gives students 12 high school credit hours.
“We’ve been successful in recruiting several of our students to return to work after college,” Wright said.
The program had 18 students in its first year and in five years it grew to 61 students, she said.
Estes said his district tracks former students currently in college for an education degree.
“We always cheer them on and follow them and even if they just graduated from college, they’ll get a phone call from us that’s like, ‘Hey, do you want to come back and teach?'” Estes said.
The Arkansas Department of Education also relaunched Teach Arkansas, which begins in part to mentor students interested in education while still in high school.
Legislation this year will also require each district to have a recruiting and retention plan for teachers and administrators, Mundell said.
As the state grapples with what to do with education funding, Estes sticks to the methods he has for retaining teachers.
“Teachers know they’ll have to teach more prep, they know they’ll do it for less money, they know they’ll have extra duties,” Estes said. “They do it anyway because they like the environment and the atmosphere of the small school.”