Arkansas lawmakers haggle over teacher pay

(The Center Square) – Lawmakers on the Senate and House Education Committees agree Arkansas teachers should get a pay raise, but just how much remains up for discussion.

The education committees met jointly on Monday to consider issues raised in the 2022 Adequacy Report. Teacher salaries emerged front and center during the meeting.

Some members said the minimum salary should be raised to $40,000, while others wanted to see starting salaries go up to $46,000.

Act 170 of 2019 mandates minimum salaries of $33,800 for teachers with no experience. The average minimum salary in 2021 was $35,799, according to the Arkansas Senate.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said she believes $40,000 isn’t enough, adding Mississippi announced it was raising its minimum teacher salary to $41,500.

“If we’re only going to go to $40,000, I’ll still go across the bridge and make more money in Mississippi and probably in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and the surrounding areas,” said Chesterfield. “We have prided ourselves in being at least at the median average of the southern regional states.” She added: “It is a step in the right direction, but it gives me great angst that we start out behind.”

Average teacher salaries in Arkansas ranked 47th in the nation in 2020, down from 44th in the nation in 2018, according to the Arkansas Senate.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, who chairs the Senate Committee on Education, said she was partial to adopting a similar approach to what’s been done in Tennessee and Louisiana.

“What they have is a differentiating salary schedule, which I think is really what I’m after,” said Irvin. “It gives them the tools to go and get what they need. So if they need to increase the salary for a physics teacher because they can’t find a physics teacher, then it gives them that ability to do that. Because they’ve got to have a physics teacher so they may have to pay that one position more in order to get what they need to get certified teachers in the classrooms. For me, that’s something I’m very interested in looking at and creating.”

Ivy Pfeffer, the deputy commissioner for the Arkansas Department of Education, said Tennessee has implemented into legislation that a district’s salary schedule must include at least one additional component including taking on additional roles or responsibilities, hard-to-staff schools or subject areas, or performance based on state board approved criteria.

“The differentiated pay is about giving districts options to not just pay from a salary schedule based on years of experience or a degree, but put in some other factors,” said Pfeffer.

Some lawmakers expressed concern over paying more to teachers for certain subjects. Chesterfield said a differentiated salary approach would lead to “devaluing” some teachers who don’t teach the hard-to-staff subjects.

The issue of experienced teachers leaving the classroom for higher-paying roles was also discussed.

“That’s one of the things that I think I feel like we have a problem with is that sometimes your certified teachers leave the classroom and go to a different position perhaps in administration or whatever because they want to make more money. I don’t blame them. But the problem is we’re kind of backwards,” said Irvin.

A final report with recommendations is due from the House and Senate Education Committees by Nov. 1. The General Assembly will then use the report as a guide when making funding decisions during the next legislative session.