Look, we know you have limited time. It’s hard to research every single issue you hear about in the news or on social media, especially in a climate riddled with partisan posturing.
We’re endeavoring to cut through the rhetoric and give a straight down the middle, simplified explainer on important issues in Arkansas.
We’re starting with teacher pay.
The Heart of the Issue
- Some people want to raise teacher salaries now using Arkansas’ $1.6 billion surplus
- Others want to give teachers a one-time bonus now and address teacher salary raises in 2023
The minimum required starting pay for Arkansas teachers is just under $36,000. That ranks 48th out of all 50 states. Average teacher pay in the state is around $51,000, ranking 46th in the nation. However, adjusted for cost of living, Arkansas ranks 28th in teacher pay in the country. See more data like this here.
Teacher salaries vary widely throughout the state. While 145 school districts pay the minimum starting salary of $36,000, the Springdale School District pays new teachers $50,000, the state’s highest starting pay.
There is a concern that the state’s teacher pay is not competitive enough to recruit new teachers and retain existing teachers, especially with neighboring states offering more.
in starting pay
adjusted for cost of living
What are other states doing?
Several states have used federal funds and budget surpluses to raise teacher salaries or give bonuses.
- New Mexico gave teachers a 20% raise
- Florida pumped $800 million into teacher raises
- Mississippi gave a 10% raise
- Alabama gave raises ranging from 4-21%
- Georgia gave teachers and education workers a one-time $2,000 bonus
How is the state doing financially?
Arkansas currently has a surplus of $1.6 billion. Interestingly, that’s about how much the federal government has given to the state for pandemic relief related specifically to schools over the past two years, according to the Arkansas Department of Education.
Who’s in charge?
The Arkansas Legislature doesn’t actually set teacher salaries. Local school boards do that. However, the legislature does set a minimum salary that school districts must meet or exceed, and it can require raises across the salary schedule.
In June, Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed raising teacher minimum starting salaries by $10,000 (to $46,000) and giving all teachers at least a $4,000 raise. He later reduced the request to a $42,000 starting salary and $4,000 raises across the board. His proposal was projected to use around $333 million in surplus dollars, leaving around $1.3 billion for other things like tax cuts.
Gov. Hutchinson has in the past worked to increase competitiveness in teacher pay. In the seven years before he became governor, there were no increases to the minimum teacher pay. After he took office in 2015, the minimum salary has increased every year.
All 29 Arkansas Democratic legislators have signed a letter supporting the RAISE Act, which would raise the minimum starting teacher salary to $42,000 and give $4,000 raises to teachers and support staff. It would pull $600 million from the surplus, leaving a $1 billion surplus. Supporters are hoping this Act will be considered in the special legislative session that begins on Aug. 9.
One-time Bonus Plan
Legislators voted last month to pull back $500 million in pandemic-related federal funds that had been previously awarded to school districts. The legislators recommended that school districts instead use that money for a one-time $5,000 bonus for teachers and a $2,500 bonus for staff.
There’s some question as to whether or not the state legislature has the legal authority to dictate that districts use the $500 million for bonuses, given that it’s federal money (not state dollars). While it is clear the bonuses are an allowable use of the federal dollars, it’s not clear if the legislature can force local school boards to use it for bonuses instead of other allowable pandemic-related expenses.
Legislators supportive of the bonus plan have said that they intend to institute teacher raises in the January 2023 legislative session in addition to the bonuses.
Why is this being debated now?
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has called a special legislative session to begin on Aug. 9 to consider new tax cuts. With a special session, the governor has the ability to determine what legislators consider. He initially discussed adding teacher pay raises to the agenda (known as “the call”), but a lack of legislative support for raises dissuaded him from doing so.
Legislators have the authority to bring up issues not on “the call” for the legislative session – like teacher pay raises – only if they can get 2/3 of their colleagues to vote to hear the issue.
Many Republicans have said they don’t want to include teacher raises in the special session because they want to wait until an education study, the Adequacy Study, is complete in October. They’ve voiced a desire to use those results to inform a teacher pay raise request in the regular legislative session in January 2023.