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Arkansas Democrats introduce proposal to raise teacher salaries, meet with governor

Ronak Patel
In a press conference earlier this summer, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he wants to use money from the budget surplus to create block grants to address school safety. He has ruled out increasing teacher pay during the August special session.

Arkansas Democrats are continuing their push to get teacher pay raises on the agenda for next month’s special session of the legislature.

On Thursday, Democrats met with Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has voiced support for $4,000 bonuses and raising the minimum salary from $36,000 a year to $42,000. Democrats have said it is important for the governor to include the item on the agenda for the session.

“We ask so much of our teachers. They often spend money out of their own pocket for basic classroom supplies. As much as they love what they do, many are leaving the profession or moving to states that pay their teachers adequately,” House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said. “We have to do much more to ensure that we are recruiting and retaining great teachers. That starts with a fair salary.”

According to the National Education Association (NEA), Arkansas ranks 48th in starting teacher salary and 46th in the average teacher salary. When adjusted for the cost of living, the state ranks 28th in teacher salary, according to the Arkansas Senate's website.

Hutchinson has declined to put teacher pay raises on the agenda for the special session. Republican leaders have said the focus of the session should be providing tax relief for Arkansans who are dealing with inflation. Even after meeting with Democrats, Hutchinson said his stance on including the item in the session hasn't changed.

“The House and Senate leadership has indicated that there is insufficient support among the members for a teacher pay increase in a special session. For that reason, there is no plan to add it to the call,” Hutchinson said in a statement.

Earlier this summer, the governor did voice his support for using part of the surplus to create block grants for school safety measures.

Republicans have said they don’t want to include the teacher salaries in the special session because they want to wait until the Adequacy Study is done. The study is required of the House and Senate Education Committees to evaluate public education funding to determine whether each student is getting an equal opportunity, according to the Arkansas House’s website.

The results of the study won’t be available until October, which is two months after the special session.

In their meeting with the governor, Democrats introduced the Raising Arkansas’s Investment in Schools and Educators (RAISE) Act.

In an interview with KUAR News, Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale and member of the House Education Committee, said the plan adopts Hutchinson’s increases and addresses concerns shared by Republicans.

“We wanted to be responsive to some of the concerns of our Republican colleagues that say this isn’t sustainable or we need to wait for the educational Adequacy Study to be completed. So we created the RAISE Act as a way to act immediately to increase teacher pay and raise the minimum salary,” Godfrey said. “But to also make it sustainable we’re using the surplus funds to create the Teacher Pay Sustainability Pay Fund.”

Godfrey explained $600 million out of the $1.6 billion the budget surplus would be used to fund the salary increases initially. She added that once the surplus is used, continued funding would come from foundation funding, which is money raised from property taxes by local school districts and distributed to schools on a per-student basis, according to the Bureau of Legislative Research (BLR).

One of the criticisms of foundation funding has been that it can distribute money unequally. When asked if there were concerns about using foundation funding to pay for the teacher pay increases, Godfrey said the party knew it would be an imperfect solution.

“There will be a lot of conversations that we need to have as the Education Committee moves forward with the end of our study to say, ‘Is this funding model equitable, is this funding model adequate?’ This is not just with teacher pay but in general,” Godfrey said.

The Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) has also identified about $60 million annually that could be used for the salary increases, Godfrey said.

According to a spreadsheet provided to KUAR News by the Democratic Party, $200 million is needed a year to increase teacher salaries.

In 2023, the cost would be $233 million since this will be the year the minimum salary increase raises from $36,000 a year to $42,000. In the spreadsheet, 2023 won’t use foundation funding. The funding will kick in during 2024, providing slightly more than $57 million. The spreadsheet shows the foundation funding will double to slightly more than $114.3 million for 2026 and 2027. Then it will increase to slightly more than $171.5 million, which is the first year the surplus won’t be used to fund the salary increases.

Godfrey said the increases in the foundation funding were determined based on increases in previous years. She said the party worked with the BLR on the projections and the projections were estimated conservatively.

In addition to the foundation funding, the spreadsheet also shows $60 million coming from the ADE each year.

Of the $600 million the Democrats would request from the surplus, about $390 million would be used to fund the salary increases from 2023 to 2027.

Godfrey said if the RAISE Act doesn’t pass during the special session, Democrats will look to try and pass the act in the 2023 legislative session.

Teachers and other advocates for pay raises are expected to hold a rally on the issue Sunday at the state Capitol beginning at 4.

Ronak Patel is a reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.
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