All Democratic lawmakers call for teacher raises; governor says support still lacking

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 2,444 views 

All 29 Arkansas Democratic legislators have signed an open letter addressed to Arkansas teachers and support staff calling for increasing their pay in the upcoming legislative session, but a spokesperson for Gov. Asa Hutchinson said not enough support yet exists for including it in the call.

The letter was signed by all seven Democratic senators and by all 22 Democratic representatives and released publicly Monday (July 18). There are 27 Republicans and one independent in the Senate and 88 Republican House members.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has announced he is calling legislators into special session Aug. 8. The primary reason is accelerating already approved tax cuts and to pass new ones with the state’s budget surplus this year totaling $1.628 billion.

He initially proposed using part of the surplus to raise the minimum teacher salary in Arkansas from $36,000 to $46,000 with at least a $4,000 increase. He later reduced that amount to $42,000 with an increase of $4,000 for every teacher during the upcoming school year. The proposal would cost $150 million for fiscal year 2023.

When the proposal failed to gain support, he said he will not be including it in the call. Asked July 18 if the governor is reconsidering, spokesperson Shealyn Sowers wrote in emails that the call has not yet been issued, but, “at this point, there is not enough legislative support to increase teacher pay.”

If the governor does not include a pay raise in the call, it could be considered with the support of two-thirds of both the House and Senate.

In the letter, Democratic lawmakers noted that base salaries in Oklahoma, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee are higher than salaries in Arkansas. Mississippi recently increased its base salaries to $41,500. The Dallas Independent School District has been advertising annual salaries between $60,000-$102,000 on billboards in the Little Rock area.

“We believe that you should be paid a salary that reflects your professionalism, skills, and dedication,” the lawmakers wrote. “That salary should enable you to support your family. Currently, low salaries for teachers and support staff in Arkansas make it tempting for you to cross state lines and grow the future leaders of our neighboring states. They have figured out your value and are actively recruiting you away from Arkansas.”

The letter joins a social media campaign led by the advocacy group For AR People listing lawmakers’ positions on teacher pay raises. The group says that, as of July 15, 45 lawmakers have expressed support for passing pay raises for educators during the special session, while 10 have expressed opposition to doing so at this time.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, co-chair of the Joint Budget Committee, wrote in a Facebook post July 15 that he had supported teacher raises in the past.

He argued that the Legislature is in the middle of its adequacy study, which occurs once every other year and will be completed around October. It leads to the creation of the public school funding matrix, which takes into account the various expenses incurred by schools, including teacher salaries, but does not specify how much schools must spend on a line-by-line basis.

Dismang wrote that, with the adequacy study, “we will be fully prepared when we go into session in January. I can assure you that increasing teachers’ pay will be a priority, and one which I will support, as I always have and always will.”

In another video post, Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, said lawmakers had increased the funding matrix every year since 2014 and increased funding for teacher salaries in the matrix every year since 2009. He argued that teacher salaries are set by local school boards.

“The Legislature wants to give the teachers a raise,” Wing said. “We want to do it correctly and responsibly like we’ve done every year for the past 14.”

The adequacy study is led by the House and Senate Education Committees. In a text exchange July 18, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, chair of the House committee, said lawmakers always recommend a teacher pay raise through the adequacy study, but he did not know how much it will be at this time.

He said he did not believe a pay raise will be included in the special session because it would have to come from the governor.

Sen. President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, was quoted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette July 17 saying there is no consensus on raising salaries in the special session – the main reason being that salary expenses are ongoing, but the surplus was created by federal stimulus money during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Democrat-Gazette reported that minimum teacher salaries did not increase between 2008 and 2015, the year Hutchinson became governor. After he took office, the minimum salary has increased every year. The largest increases occurred this past fiscal year at 3.25%, with next year’s being 3.15%.

According to the National Education Association, Arkansas’ average starting teacher salary of $35,803 during the 2020-21 fiscal year was 48th in the nation. Its average teacher salary of $51,668 was 46th.

Minimum teacher salaries vary widely across the state. While 145 school districts pay the minimum $36,000, the Springdale School District recently voted to increase its minimum to $50,282, the state’s highest.

Twenty-four percent of the state’s teachers left public school employment in 2021, according to the Arkansas Department of Education. The percentages were 21% in 2020, 26% in 2019, and 24% in 2018 and 2017.