The 2021 legislative session will be unlike any other for the Arkansas Education Association and its president, Carol Fleming.
In a Talk Business & Politics interview, Fleming offered commentary on a variety of education subjects, including teacher pay, broadband, vouchers, standardized testing, and coronavirus vaccines and funding. The AEA represents thousands of teachers and education support professionals statewide.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed in his State of the State speech another round of teacher pay increases. He wants to raise the starting salaries by $2,000 per year for the next two years. Fleming said her organization supports this move, but also wants to see more funding for support personnel.
“I’d like to see more money, but this is definitely a start,” she said. “And we are appreciative of the fact that the governor is looking at the salary for our teachers, but it’s really important for us to consider looking at the salaries of our educators. All educators. Teachers are not the only ones that work in our schools. We have support staff. We have classified staff. We have healthcare professionals that are working in our schools, and we need to look at their salaries as well.”
One place where some additional funding may come into play is the $558 million the state of Arkansas will receive from the latest round of federal coronavirus relief. Congress passed more funding in late December for states.
Fleming hopes the money may be used to help with emergency leave for educators in the line of fire for COVID-19 illnesses. She also says the money could be used to help with smaller class sizes in order to be more protective against the virus.
“The first thing that we would like for school districts to do is extend that COVID leave,” she said. “Use those monies that are coming into their districts to provide that leave for educators who have to quarantine due to exposure or actually contracting the virus.”
“That money can be used for increased staffing. Because with smaller class sizes, you need to have more staff to be able to meet the needs of our students,” Fleming said.
She also said she hopes school districts will use the new influx of money for facility upgrades, such as HVAC systems to help improve air quality control since the coronavirus is an airborne one.
In the 2021 state legislative session, Arkansas lawmakers will be touting a variety of policy initiatives, including broadband expansion to help with virtual learning, changes to standardized testing of students, and different forms of school vouchers. Fleming warns that vouchers pose a major threat to public school funding.
“That’s really a difficult question to answer as to how serious it’s going to be this time. It’s always a threat. Whether it’s in the past or in the future and current,” she said. “Vouchers, that is public money… when you’re looking at providing money to the schools, public money should go to public schools. There needs to be accountability for those public funds. And when you’re looking at those vouchers, there’s no accountability. That’s why our stance is, has been, and will always be public funds for public schools.”
You can watch Fleming’s full interview in the video below.