Arkansas lawmakers haggle over teacher pay

(The Center Square) — Lawmakers on the Senate and House Education Committees agree teachers in Arkansas should get a pay rise, but how much is still up for debate.

The Education Committees met together Monday to discuss the issues raised in the 2022 Adequacy Report. Teacher salaries surfaced during the meeting.

Some members said the minimum salary should be raised to $40,000, while others called for starting salaries to be increased to $46,000.

Law 170 of 2019 mandates minimum salaries of $33,800 for teachers with no experience. According to the Arkansas Senate, the median minimum salary in 2021 was $35,799.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said she believes $40,000 isn’t enough, adding that Mississippi has announced it will raise the minimum salary for teachers to $41,500.

“If we just go to $40,000, I’ll still go across the bridge and make more money in Mississippi and probably Louisiana, Oklahoma and the surrounding areas,” Chesterfield said. “We’re proud to be at least in the median of the southern states.” She added, “It’s a step in the right direction, but it scares me a lot that we’re starting at the bottom.”

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According to the Arkansas Senate, average teacher salaries in Arkansas ranked 47th nationwide in 2020, up from 44th in 2018.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, chair of the Senate Committee on Education, said she is willing to take an approach similar to that in Tennessee and Louisiana.

“What they have is a differentiated pay plan, and I think that’s really what I’m looking for,” Irvin said. “It gives them the tools to go and get what they need. So if they need to increase the salary of a physics teacher because they can’t find a physics teacher, that gives them the opportunity to do so. Because they must have a physics teacher, they may have to pay that one position more to get what they need to get certified teachers in the classrooms. For me it’s something that I look at and create with great interest.”

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Ivy Pfeffer, the Arkansas Department of Education deputy commissioner, said Tennessee legislated that a district’s pay scale must include at least one additional component, including assuming additional roles or responsibilities, hard-to-fill schools or departments, or performance based on by the State authority approved criteria.

“Pay differential is about giving districts the ability to not just pay on a pay schedule based on years of experience or a degree, but to factor in some other factors,” Pfeffer said.

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Some lawmakers have expressed concern about paying teachers more for certain subjects. Chesterfield said a differentiated salary approach would mean that some teachers who don’t teach the hard-to-fill subjects would be “devalued”.

The problem of experienced teachers leaving the classroom for higher-paying positions was also discussed.

“That’s one of the things I think we have a problem with is that sometimes your certified teachers leave the classroom and go into another position, maybe in administration or whatever, because they want to make more money. I am not blaming you. But the problem is that we’re kind of backwards,” Irvin said.

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

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