May 15, 2024 - News

Costs, teacher absences prevent schools from using LEARNS-established paid maternity leave

Illustration of a stork carrying a bundle drawn in chalk on a chalkboard.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' sweeping education law includes a measure by which school districts can grant up to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave with a state match on costs.

The big picture: Most Arkansas school districts haven't taken up the option, and none in Northwest Arkansas had implemented paid maternity leave through LEARNS as of April 1, according to data from the state's education department.

Why it matters: Arkansas teachers are not guaranteed paid maternity or paternity leave. New parents generally use accrued paid time off (PTO), including sick time that rolls over each year. A teacher who's worked three years at Rogers and never used a sick day, for example, could have 30 school days to use, superintendent Jeff Perry told Axios.

  • Some plan so that births occur during summer or winter breaks. Otherwise, staff take unpaid leave.

State of play: Rules passed by the state Board of Education last week say the state will reimburse school districts for half the cost of substitutes while employees are on maternity leave. The rules do not say the state will cover any of the salary of the regular employees.

  • The LEARNS Act requires the state to pay half of "incurred costs" for approved paid maternity leave for participating districts.
  • Education leaders had assumed the state would be covering half the costs of staff salaries, given the language of the law, Fayetteville superintendent John Mulford told Axios.

Context: A substitute teacher in Fayetteville makes $107 a day, Mulford said, while a new teacher with a bachelor's degree earns $274 a day. Half of a substitute's salary would amount to less than a quarter of a teacher's salary.

Rogers school leaders are not conceptually against paid maternity leave, but it could cut into raises or prevent hiring more staff, Perry said.

  • It would also exacerbate an existing struggle to find qualified, long-term substitute teachers, especially for Advanced Placement or special-education classes.
  • "There are consequences for every good thing you do, and this was one that the consequences were pretty heavy," Perry said.

What they're saying: "The rules approved by the State Board of Education define the cost of maternity leave as the cost of the substitute staff hired in order to fulfill the teachers' duties while the teacher is on leave. The rules meet the requirements of the law," education department spokesperson Kimberly Mundell told Axios in an email.

Zoom out: "We are mandated to offer 178 days of in-person learning, and it's our obligation to provide that education with as few learning disruptions as possible. We believe this offering would significantly increase teacher absences," Bentonville Public Schools spokesperson Leslee Wright told Axios in an email.

  • Springdale Public Schools spokesperson Trent Jones cited the lack of state funding to cover maternity leave as to why the district has not opted in.

By the numbers: Twenty-two districts had opted into maternity leave as of April 1, of which 14 offer the max of 12 weeks. Almost none of the state's largest school districts have opted in except Jonesboro, which is offering six weeks.

  • Other districts include Nettleton, Kirby, Mount Ida, Two Rivers, Spring Hill, Greenbrier, Helena-West Helena, Marvell-Elaine, Beebe, Lee County, Rose Bud, Earle, Lawrence County, Bay, Clinton, Rivercrest, Searcy, Magnolia, Fordyce, Hope, and Pine Bluff.

Yes, but: Fayetteville plans to study the feasibility, although it might mean not offering the full 12 weeks.

  • "We do see paid maternity leave as a benefit to our people," Mulford said, adding that it would likely improve recruitment and retention.

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