Jul 19, 2022 - Politics

Arkansas' special session unlikely to address teacher raises

Illustration of a red apple with a hundred dollar bill for a leaf. 
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The Twittersphere was abuzz over the weekend in an attempt to persuade lawmakers to consider teacher pay in its upcoming special session.

Driving the news: After mentioning that he supported raising teacher salaries, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said last week there was no legislative support to raise the topic in the special session scheduled for Aug. 8.

  • Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey Jr. (R-Texarkana), in an early June email said that Hutchinson's original proposal for teacher raises would cost $333 million, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
  • The lawmaker doesn't want to deal with the issue in the special session.

​​Context: The special session is intended to manage spending Arkansas' record $1.6 billion revenue surplus and will likely focus on accelerating individual income tax cuts.

  • The largest income tax cuts in state history are currently on a graduated schedule to be reduced to 4.9% by 2025.

Why it matters: Arkansas' teacher salaries are among the lowest in the U.S., impacting the state's ability to recruit and retain educators.

  • The minimum starting salary for a teacher in the 2022-23 school year is set at $36,000, up from $34,900 last academic year.
  • NWA's starting salaries are typically higher, forcing smaller and rural schools to compete for teachers in their own state.

State of play: The Palestine-Wheatley School District in eastern Arkansas will have a four-day week this fall in an attempt to attract and keep their educators, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports.

  • The school's superintendent told the newspaper that teachers can earn $10,000 more in Memphis, and the district lost one teacher who moved to NWA this summer.

Yes, and: The Arkansas Board of Education has taken over teacher recruitment, hiring and scheduling in the Helena-West Helena School District, removing the board's oversight of personnel decisions.

  • The district requested the extension of a waiver allowing it to hire unlicensed teachers when it couldn't find enough with credentials to fill openings.
Data: Axios research; Note: Only pay schedules for the 2021-2022 school year were available for Pea Ridge, Prairie Grove and Greenland; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Axios research; Note: Only pay schedules for the 2021-2022 school year were available for Pea Ridge, Prairie Grove and Greenland; Chart: Axios Visuals

By the numbers: A living wage for a single adult in Arkansas with no children is equal to $32,344 a year ($15.55 per hour) according to a calculator from MIT.

  • If that person has one child, they would need to earn more than $62,000 a year to make a living wage in the state.
  • Arkansas ranked No. 46 in the nation for 2020-21 teacher pay, per the National Education Association.

What they're saying: "I'm all for addressing teacher pay [in the special session]," state Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) told Axios, though he says he has some concerns about the ongoing cost of raises, and he feels lawmakers should respond to the issue sooner than later.

  • "It just feels like we've got one great shot here with a massive pile of money that we might not see for a very long time, and we should invest it wisely," Leding said.

"We're asked to do way more than teach, and that's where the burnout comes from," Rob Lambert, who teaches high school English in Rogers, told Axios.

  • He knows educators who have stopped teaching due to stress or to retire early and many who work weekend and summer jobs.
  • There are so many jobs in NWA, Lambert said, that "they realize they can have an easier job and get paid more money."

He would like lawmakers to address teacher pay in the special session, but won't be surprised if they don't.

  • "Politicians run on this, 'We care about education and kids,'" Lambert said, "But when supporting educators costs money, they aren't so eager to help."

What to watch: The non-partisan group For AR People is petitioning lawmakers to "pass legislation that gives these much-deserving state employees a raise" and plans to rally at the Arkansas State Capitol in coming weeks.

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