EUREKA SPRINGS -- The minimum starting salary for a teacher should be raised from $31,800 to $36,000*, and his administration will commit to that if he is re-elected, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday during his first debate with rival candidates.
That goal would be much more attainable if Hutchinson had not already announced plans for a $180 million tax cut for the state's most affluent residents, replied Democratic candidate Jared Henderson. The former executive of the nonprofit Teach for America has made raising teacher pay a major theme of his campaign.
Libertarian candidate Mark West, a pastor in Batesville, said the proposed raise wouldn't mean much to communities that have lost their schools. Those communities were left behind by economic growth concentrated in a few counties while the rest of the state declines, he said.
Hutchinson, Henderson and West debated during the Arkansas Press Association's annual convention in Eureka Springs. The association is composed of newspapers in the state.
"Raising starting teacher salary to $36,000 will give us the highest pay for teachers in the region," the governor said.
His administration arrived at the figure by comparing salaries in surrounding states and beyond. Arkansas has avoided problems seen in other states, such as neighboring Oklahoma, where teacher strikes forced raises after years of dormant salaries.
Starting salaries for teachers have increased 13 percent since he took office in 2015, Hutchinson said. His proposed increase would raise that to 23 percent, he said.
Besides raising teacher pay as he has long supported, Henderson said, the state has other needs to address. The state should do more to reduce the childhood poverty rate, he said. More areas need state-funded prekindergarten classes, he said, and the state also should reduce teachers' nonclassroom duties.
"We've been trying to manage our teachers to success," Henderson said. "Instead, we're taking them away from their students."
West drew attention to economic disparities in the state and how that has hurt rural schools. Economic growth is now largely concentrated in seven of the 75 counties, he said.
On other issues, Hutchinson described as imperfect a proposed constitutional amendment to set caps on attorney fees and certain lawsuit damages and was not ready to say whether he supported it. His two rivals strongly opposed it.
"It would give more power to the Legislature, and I would be against that, whichever party controlled it," Henderson said. The Legislature currently is majority Republican. "This amendment would put the Legislature in control of legal and medical matters."
Rules of evidence and court procedures would be set by the Legislature, for instance, under the provisions of the amendment.
West opposed the amendment in stronger terms.
"It violates the concept of separation of powers," he said. "It puts way too much of the judiciary under the control of the legislative branch, where it can be politicized. Libertarians believe in the separation of powers, and this is at odds with the whole concept. I see it as overreach."
All the candidates agreed the state needs stronger ethics laws.
Friday's debate took place hours after a former state employee was charged in Batesville with using his knowledge to steer millions of Medicaid dollars to the private company he joined as an employee. This follows the guilty pleas or convictions of five state lawmakers since January 2017 on corruption charges in an ongoing federal investigation.
The state agency that regulates pesticides and fertilizer has more enforcement power than the state ethics watchdog, Hutchinson said.
"Right now, the Arkansas Plant Board has more penalizing authority than the Ethics Commission," Hutchinson said. "That needs to change."
Meaningful change will require the Legislature to pass laws, and that will require leadership, West said.
"The Legislature has fought real ethics legislation," he said.
Henderson praised recent changes to Senate rules, which included creating a committee on ethics. West scoffed at those measures.
"It's the police policing the police," West said.
Metro on 06/30/2018
*CORRECTION: The minimum starting teacher salary in Arkansas for the coming school year is $31,800. An earlier version of this story included an incorrect salary number.
Print Headline: Hutchinson, rivals key on teacher pay