House panel passes teacher pay raise bill

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 514 views 

Teachers at 168 school districts would enjoy $1,000 pay raises under a bill passed by the House Education Committee Tuesday (Feb. 5).

House Bill 1145 by Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, the Teacher Salary Enhancement Act, would increase state-mandated minimum salaries for beginning teachers with a bachelor’s degree from $31,800 in 2018-19 to $32,800 in 2019-2020.

Salaries would rise to $33,800 in 2020-21. By 2022-23, starting teachers would be earning $36,000 a year.

Next year, a teacher with 15 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree would earn a state minimum of $39,550. A teacher with a master’s degree and 15 years’ experience would earn $44,950. By 2022-23, that same teacher would earn $48,150.

The bill is one of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s top four priorities this session along with cutting taxes, reorganizing state government, and funding highways. During his re-election campaign in 2018, he said he wanted to make starting teacher pay in Arkansas the highest in the region.

In addition to Cozart, the bill has 91 co-sponsors in the 100-member House and 13 co-sponsors in the 35-member Senate. The bill passed with no audible no votes.

The pay increases would have a $60 million impact on the state budget that would be covered with money accrued in the Educational Adequacy Fund, funded by a 7/8ths-cent sales tax passed in a 2003-04 special session. According to Education Commissioner Johnny Key, that fund has about $500 million. The money will be spent and replenished, but it currently can cover the $60 million over four years because the fund’s income and property tax collections have exceeded expectations, and there are fewer students in school than expected. He said he was confident the money will be available.

The legislation contains no mechanism for funding salary increases beyond 2022-23. Cozart, the House Education Committee chairman, told legislators they will have to create a permanent solution these next four years.

Dr. Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said afterwards that his group supports the bill and “absolutely supports paying teachers as much as we can.” There are concerns about what happens in that fifth year when districts will be obligated to pay higher salaries without a current funding mechanism, but he said they are trusting the Legislature’s educational adequacy process will create a permanent solution.

“But we have some districts (that are) a little nervous on year five, what’s going to happen,” he said.

The state has 238 school districts and 25 open-enrollment charter school districts.

Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, asked if struggling districts that have already raised teacher salaries would be compensated. Key said they would not. He recognized the situation might not be fair to districts such as Dumas and Salem, which have raised salaries, but the state did not mandate any minimum salary increases from 2009 until 2015 and is now playing catchup.

Among the districts receiving more funding will be Batesville, which will get nearly $1.2 million; Pine Bluff, which will receive nearly $1 million; Little Rock, which will get $2.65 million; and North Little Rock, which will get $771,000.

The salary increases come at a time when school districts are responding to a minimum wage increase passed by voters in November that will increase the minimum wage to $11 an hour by Jan. 1, 2021. Abernathy said school districts are facing $1.9 million in salary increases this year, $6.4 million next year, and $12 million the next.

He said his group does not support Senate Bill 115 by Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville, which among other provisions would exempt education institutions from the increase. Instead, it wants the state to provide the funding to cover the increased wages.

“We don’t understand how you can justify paying someone who works with your most precious resources, your kids, less than you pay someone else in other positions,” he said.