A Service of UA Little Rock
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

LEARNS Act pays for teacher salary mandates, but districts must adjust schedules

Lindsay Johnson

Gov. Sarah Sanders’ LEARNS Act will increase beginning teacher salaries in the Bryant School District by $7,500 and give all teachers above $50,000 a raise of $2,000, but the district will have to adjust its current salary schedule.

The legislation’s sponsor says the act’s mandated raises will be funded and that school districts can create salary schedules that meet their needs.

Signed into law March 8, the LEARNS Act increases the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 and guarantees all teachers at least a $2,000 raise.

While the policy is now law, funding must wait for the state’s budget process. The House and Senate must agree on the numbers for their biennial educational adequacy formula, which will determine the state’s amount for teacher pay. Also, the Department of Education appropriation, an overall budget, and the Revenue Stabilization Act (RSA) must be completed for all of the funding to align.

That’s not to say that estimates can’t be made.

Dr. Karen Walters, Bryant’s superintendent, said in an interview with Talk Business & Politics the district’s current minimum salary is $42,500. Raising the minimum to $50,000 and then likewise bumping up salaries higher on the schedule by the same amount would increase salaries by $7 million. At the same time, her district expects to receive $1.93 million from the state for the salary increases mandated by the law, according to a draft spreadsheet for all districts provided by the Arkansas Department of Education.

The LEARNS Act provides for the increase in teacher minimum pay up to $50,000, which will be $7,500 per beginning teacher in Bryant. The new law never promised to provide $7,500 pay raises for teachers making over $50,000, just the $2,000 per teacher increase. That difference is leading to questions, consternation and conflict about teacher pay.

The Bryant school district’s annual salary budget is $39 million, so the $5 million difference needed to pay veteran teachers a $7,500 increase is too big for Bryant to absorb and still keep its schedule. The district provides extra money based on education levels and experience, topping out at a little more than $70,000 for a teacher with 28 years and a doctorate. But finding a way to equitably provide salary increases for all teachers will be a challenge for the school district.

While everyone will get at least the minimum $2,000 raise this upcoming year, salary differences between new and returning teachers will be compressed. Teachers about to finish a master’s degree or specialist degree may see less of an increase than they would have under the old salary schedule. Complicating the issue is the fact that some certified staff members are paid through federal funds. Pay increases for them will have to come out of operating funds.

“Moving forward, our salary schedule is not going to look the way it does now,” she said.

Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, the bill’s primary Senate sponsor, said all the raises mandated in the LEARNS Act – the $50,000 minimum and the $2,000 salary increases – will be funded by the state. The legislation removed the state’s minimum salary schedule, which she said gives districts more freedom to create their own.

“I’ve heard from several superintendents who are excited about getting to make their own salary schedule in a way that values what they value at their school district to recruit the teachers that they want to recruit to their district,” she said.

Davis said that prior to the legislation’s passage, the majority of the state’s school districts maxed out below $50,000 at the top of their salary schedules.

“We know that we’ve got a teacher shortage, and we need to respond quickly to getting people into the teaching profession,” she said.

Other districts are adjusting to the LEARNS Act. The Mountain Home school district decided at a board meeting March 16 to put teacher renewals on hold, as reported by KTLO. The district’s policy is to issue teacher contracts by March 31 each year.

“Because of some of the still unknowns that we don’t really have at this point within rules and regs of the development of that, we’re going to press pause on that so that we can have the clearest picture that we have as far as issuing contracts,” the district’s superintendent, Dr. Jake Long, told KTLO.

Long said about half of the district’s roughly 300 teachers will see an increase to the new state minimum of $50,000. He said not all certified staff members will be covered by increasing state funds. He doesn’t expect to cut any positions.

In Bryant, Walters said that she will work with the Personnel Policies Committee at the beginning of the next school year to try to draft a differentiated schedule, but it won’t have as many increases for experience and educational attainments. She has considered a salary step schedule based on five years instead of one.

“This has happened pretty quickly, and we’ve just not had the opportunity to sit down with our staff and kind of talk through this,” she said.

Walters expects districts to use retention bonuses that are not on the salary schedule as a way to keep experienced teachers.

“I think it’s awesome that a beginning teacher is getting a $14,000 raise, but I also think we have to think about retention,” she said.

Ali Noland, a Little Rock School Board member and critic of the LEARNS Act, said the lack of funding over $2,000 for teacher raises for more experienced educators making above $50,000 will be disruptive to the existing salary schedule in her district and create pay disparities.

“The legislators who voted for the LEARNS Act either didn’t understand that it will leave districts in a financial bind and will make it more difficult for us to fairly compensate our most qualified educators – those with years of experience and advanced degrees – or they knew this would be the result and passed it anyway. Either way, their actions will negatively impact local public schools in every community in Arkansas,” Noland said.

She expects school board members and superintendents to catch the brunt of the criticism for this salary schedule change, when it has a negative effect.

“As local school boards grapple with how to fund these raises, every district is going to have very difficult choices to make. It’s important for teachers and the public to understand that their school board, superintendent, and CFO did not create this problem. School officials are doing the best they can to figure this out in a way that is both fair to all employees and fiscally responsible,” she said. “Respectfully, I would suggest that complaints about how the raises are implemented be directed at the governor and the legislators who passed this rushed mess of a law, not the district-level folks who are having to live with it.”

Administration officials suggest there will be options for school districts to adapt, if needed. The LEARNS funding is separate from other money that will come from the state to schools and they will have flexibility for more advanced teacher pay.

“The amount of funding we are giving to districts to cover the salary increases under LEARNS is a completely different pot of money. Districts will still get foundation funds that are separate from the amount we are providing under LEARNS. To say the state is not giving them enough money to cover the costs under LEARNS is simply not true,” said Kimberly Mundell, Director of Communications for the Arkansas Department of Education.

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics.