Arkansas Senate panel recommends plan to increase teacher pay, create task force

The task force would study issues like inequities in funding smaller school districts

Sen. Missy Irvin speaks into a microphone in the Arkansas Senate chambers

Sen. Missy Irvin presides over a meeting in July 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Senate).

The Arkansas Senate education committee on Tuesday approved recommendations that include additional money for increased teacher salaries and merit-based pay. 

The proposal also includes a recommendation to create a legislative task force to study education funding outside of the adequacy review process.

“Overall, the report is focused on moving from adequacy to excellence by focusing on the needs of teachers and students, particularly the students that are facing various learning challenges, such as poverty,” chair Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) said.

The approval comes two weeks after the House and Senate education committees were split on public school funding recommendations that included additional money for increased teacher salaries.

The House panel unanimously approved that proposal. The Senate committee opposed the proposal on a voice vote, with only one member voting in favor.

The proposed funding formula, called the matrix, approved by House committee members on Oct. 4 would increase funding for teacher pay by $4,000, raising the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $40,000. Classified employees would receive $2 more an hour.

If the proposal is approved by the full Legislature in January, teachers could also see “salary enhancements” for the current school year.

The Senate and House education committees met jointly this month to discuss school funding and review the adequacy of education spending, a requirement imposed by the landmark court case, Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee.

Lawmakers have conducted these adequacy reviews every two years since 2003 to ensure public school funding is equitable. The committees’ report to the speaker of the House, Senate president pro tempore and governor is due Nov. 1.

The report establishes a funding formula that sets per student amounts for categories like alternative learning environments and classes for English language learners. Arkansas spends about 41% of its general revenue budget on K-12 public education.

Recommendations

Like the proposal approved by the House, the Senate proposal would increase funding for teacher pay by $4,000 to $40,000 and classified employees would receive $2 more an hour.

The proposal differs in that teachers would not receive an increase in pay until July 2023 — the start of fiscal 2024 — and that it recommends creating a merit teacher incentive fund that would begin in fiscal 2025. 

“This would be a fund districts could use to reward teachers based on effectiveness, demand and experience,” Irvin said. “This will allow teachers to be paid extra for contributions they make while remaining in the classroom.” 

The state’s $1.6 billion surplus prompted calls this summer to increase teacher salaries. But Gov. Asa Hutchinson did not include teacher raises on the agenda for August’s special session because it did not have enough support among Republican legislators.

Lawmakers said then they’d rather address the issue when the regular session begins in January.

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Senator Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock), a retired teacher, again expressed her disappointment that a base salary of $40,000 still puts Arkansas behind Mississippi, which increased its minimum teacher salary to $41,500 this year.

“One of the reasons I voted against the House recommendation is because I thought we in the Senate would raise it to at least $42,000; we have not done that,” Chesterfield said. 

Teachers’ salaries could be increased through the proposed merit program, Irvin said. 

“The baseline salary is less than $41,500, but fiscal year ‘25 gives them the opportunity to actually raise that by an additional $2,000,” she said.

The Senate’s proposal did include Sen. Chesterfield’s recommendation that alternative learning educators monitor student academic achievement and report to the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education and legislative education committees annually.

Task Force

Lawmakers also approved recommendations to create two legislative task forces. The first would examine out-of-school factors that impact student success.

The second would study K-12 education funding and look at topics such as moving from a prior year to a current year funding model, and studying inequities in funding small school districts caused by per pupil funding.

The task force would work outside of the adequacy review process, which would continue.

“This would be something that would be outside of that that would just really focus on the funding mechanism that we utilize with this matrix and this adequacy formula, and really give the legislature the ability to focus on that funding mechanism and to look at other states, other best practices so that we can really reach more of a high level of student performance,” Irvin said.

Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) supported the creation of the task force because she said she’s long felt that it’s time to look at the whole funding process and decide what the state’s priorities are. 

“I think that there are a lot of things out there that we really need to be looking at differently,” English said. “What we’re doing right now is what we were doing 20 years ago and the world has changed in 20 years.” 

A motion to approve the recommendations passed on a voice vote. Sen. Chesterfield was the only audible descent.

In addition to her displeasure with the proposed base teacher salary, she expressed frustration about not being included in the conversation about which recommendations would be proposed today. 

“I am accustomed to being excluded from the we because every time I think I’m on the team, I find out I don’t have a uniform,” Chesterfield said. “But it is very, very disconcerting to me that you already knew what you were going to do, you came in here with it already prepared. You never contacted us [Chesterfield and Sen. Joyce Elliott] to be a part of the conversation.”

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Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate
Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.

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