Several Arkansas legislators joined state Education Commissioner Johnny Key and staff members of the Bureau of Legislative Research Tuesday to begin the discussion on teacher salaries in the state, which goes a long way toward shaping education funding annually.
Historically, members of the Senate and House of Representative education committees make public education funding recommendations to the governor. His proposed budget is shaped by them and subsequently submitted to the entire legislature for debate and consent.
On Tuesday, the bureau presented its bi-annual Teacher Salary Report. The average salary for an Arkansas teacher fell three spots last year, from 39th in the nation to 42nd. The average annual salary in Arkansas is $48,304. That's within three percent of the average police officer salary — $49,400, according to the state Department of Finance and Administration.
State Rep. Charlotte Douglas (R-Alma), herself a former teacher, is a vice chair of the House committee. She says that teacher salary average might be artificially high.
"I'm worried the way we're reporting average salaries has made it look higher than it actually is. That's why we've asked [the bureau] to tease out some of the data we feel like is skewing it high."
Specifically, Douglas is worried that including coaches and "12-month-a-year teachers" is driving the number up.
Rep. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) said he thinks the cost-of-living should be factored into the committees' considerations.
"Somebody that's a factory worker in southeast Arkansas isn't going to make as much as a factory worker in northwest Arkansas just because of elements of competition," he said. "If we're going to look at teachers' salaries, I just want to make sure all the factors are thrown in there."
On the other hand, pay imbalances are just that when retirement benefits are calculated.
"Look at a teacher only making $37,000, not $57,000, and you look at the 30 year impact, because you know we want teachers to be in the profession for a lifetime. And when you look at their retirement impact, obviously the one that's making [less] … they're not going to have as much income in retirement. So, what kind of effect are we creating down the road 20-30 years?"
Hammer's wife has been a teacher in Augusta, Des Arc and Benton for more than three decades.
Neither legislator thought conditions in the state should prompt the kind of public outcry or demonstrations Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia have seen.
"Would we have the teachers from northwest Arkansas want to join, you know, a big sit-in at the Capitol when they're making $48,000 as a beginning teacher," Douglas asked. "Would they want to help that teacher from the Delta making $32,000?"
A beginning Springdale teacher earns more than $47,000, but in 30 other rural districts in the state, teachers begin at $31,400.
"I think some things will come out of the '19 session that will show that we listened, and we'll avoid that kind of reaction from the teachers," Hammer said.
Douglas and Hammer said that school districts themselves share in the responsibility of offering competitive wages.
"A lot of districts are not even giving the teachers what we're sending them in the funding formula," Douglas said.
The education committees are expected to make joint recommendations to Gov. Asa Hutchinson by November. He then shapes a budget to return to lawmakers ahead of the 92nd General Assembly in January.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.