Democrats file legislation to increase pay for Arkansas teachers, school staff

By: - January 26, 2023 5:50 pm
Sen. Greg Leding, Rep. Tippi McCullough

Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) and Rep. Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock) filed legislation on Jan. 26 to increase pay for Arkansas teachers and classified staff. (Photo courtesy of the Arkansas Democratic Party of Arkansas)

Arkansas Democrats filed bills on Thursday to raise minimum salaries for teachers to $50,000 a year and for classified staff to $15 an hour.

Sponsored by House Minority Leader Rep. Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock), the Raising Arkansas’s Investment in Schools and Educators (RAISE) Act calls for an immediate $10,000 raise for all full-time teachers. The legislation also requires an increase in the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 by June 30, 2024.

“For over three decades, I taught in just about every type of classroom from parochial to private to public,” McCullough said in a statement. “I can say confidently that Arkansas is blessed with some of the very best educators the South can offer, but we are not paying them their worth.” 

The Democrats’ bill introduced on Thursday is an alternative to a yet-to-be filed education package from Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Republicans. The legislation is expected to expand school choice, increase teacher pay and implement literacy improvement measures among other provisions.

With a Republican supermajority in both chambers, the Democrats would need Republican support to pass their bill.

Rep. Tippi McCullough
Rep. Tippi McCullough (Courtesy Arkansas House)

The RAISE Act would cost $350 million for the $10,000 raise and a one-time cost of $30 million to help districts meet the new minimum salary, according to a press release.

Under the legislation, the Arkansas State Treasurer is directed to transfer $30 million from the Education Adequacy Fund to the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education Public School Account solely for the implementation of the Educator Compensation Reform Program. The sub-fund’s money must be used over a one-year period, effective July 1, 2023.

Beyond that one-year of funding, McCullough told the Arkansas Advocate it will “take a sustained commitment to invest in teachers and schools year after year, which we desperately need to do anyway, and this is the first step for year one of that new commitment.”

Arkansas Democrats introduced a plan last July to increase the state’s minimum salary by $4,000 by using about $600 million from the state’s $1.6 billion surplus. House Bill 1268 follows through on that promise to increase teacher pay, McCullough said.

In addition to raising educators’ salaries, the legislation also amends the definition of teacher to include curriculum specialists, instructional facilitators or any other full-time public school employees who are not in administrator or director-level roles and are required to hold teaching licenses issued by the State Board of Education as a condition of employment.

Supporting staff

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) co-sponsored the RAISE Act and is the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 149, which would increase per-student foundation funding amounts from $7,182 to $8,195 for the 2023-2024 school year and $8,370 for the 2025-2026 school year.

Sen. Greg Leding
Sen. Greg Leding (Courtesy Arkansas Senate)

Beginning with the 2023-2024 school year, ADE would advise public school districts to pay classified employees at least $15 an hour. Classified employees are school employees who don’t require teaching licenses, like administrative assistants, bus drivers and janitors. 

Just like teachers, the “dedicated and hardworking staff who make our schools run every day” deserve a raise, Leding said in a statement.

Right now, there is a majority in this legislature that wants pay raises for teachers and support staff,” he said. “Together with these two bills we can build a brighter Arkansas for every child.” 

The legislation also states that the hourly rate will be revised each year to increase based on the growth percentage of the Consumer Price Index as described in Arkansas law. 

Currently, classified staff must be paid at least the state’s minimum wage — $11 an hour.

The classified staff raise comes from a House recommendation out of the educational adequacy study to raise the per-pupil foundation amount for non-teacher employees. The bill doubles the initial recommendation from a $2-an-hour increase to $4 more an hour.

During her first day in office on Jan. 10, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she wanted to be the “education governor” and told the Arkansas General Assembly, “If you send me a bill that rewards our teachers with higher pay, I will sign it.”

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders addresses the Arkansas General Assembly
Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivers remarks to the 94th General Assembly in the state House Chamber on Jan. 10, 2023. (Shealah Craighead/Governor’s Office)

The next day, she signed an executive order covering a variety of issues, including literacy, school choice and early childhood education. Sanders called the order “a comprehensive approach [to] education that we want to parallel” with a single bill that will move through the Legislature. 

At the time, Sanders said the bill will be filed “very soon,” but an omnibus education bill has not yet been filed.

A spokeswoman from the governor’s office issued a statement to the Arkansas Advocate saying, “Governor Sanders has been clear: Arkansas will reward hardworking teachers with higher pay when the legislature passes her bold education reform package, and she signs Arkansas LEARNS into law.”

Rep. McCullough told the Arkansas Advocate she doesn’t know what would be included in an omnibus education bill, and the Democrats’ preference is to pass “simple, clean bills.”

“That’s our purpose here, that’s our priority is just to take care of these teachers and doing this with these clean bills, nothing else attached,” she said.

All 24 Democrats in the Arkansas General Assembly are co-sponsors of both bills.

Ongoing battle

The state’s $1.6 billion surplus prompted calls last summer to increase teacher salaries. However, then Gov. Asa Hutchinson did not include teacher raises on the agenda for last August’s special session because it did not have enough support among Republican legislators. Lawmakers said they’d rather address the issue during the regular session in January.

Last July, the Arkansas Legislative Council rescinded $500 million in spending authority it had given the Arkansas Department of Education in June. Approximately $42.5 million of the $500 million had already been spent, so the council appropriated that funding back to the education department.

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Lawmakers then strongly recommended that schools use American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money to provide retention and recruitment bonuses to teachers and staff. 

School districts did not have to provide bonuses because it was a recommendation not a requirement, but they had to provide justifications for why they didn’t award bonuses. Lawmakers concluded their review of districts’ proposals in October

That same month, the House and Senate education committees were split on public school funding recommendations. Each committee submitted their own funding proposal, but both groups included recommendations to increase teacher pay. 

The Senate and House education committees discussed school funding and reviewed the adequacy of education spending last year as required 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 was 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.

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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

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.