The House of Representatives on Thursday unanimously passed a measure to raise Arkansas' minimum teacher salary by $4,000 over the next four years.
Under House Bill 1145 by Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, a starting teacher with a bachelor's degree would make a minimum of $32,800 next year and $36,000 by 2023. That same teacher now makes $31,800 a year.
The plan is backed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who made raising the lowest level of teacher pay a pillar of his re-election campaign and legislative agenda. The executive branch has identified $60 million in state funds to help 168 public school districts meet the proposed new standard. The state has 238 districts.
"I am grateful for the support by the members in passing my priority to increase teacher pay to $36,000 over the next four years," the Republican governor said in a statement. "Additionally, I appreciate Rep. Cozart and his tremendous work in shepherding this legislation to this point. Our teachers are truly invaluable, and today's decision brings us one step closer to supporting our educators with more equitable and competitive salaries. I am encouraged by the momentum of the bill as it continues on to the Senate."
Arkansas' bottom teacher salary remained stagnant from 2009-15, but lawmakers have increased the minimum teacher salary schedule each of the last four years.
The state's minimum teacher salary schedule ranks in the middle among southern states, but under HB1145, only Alabama would have a higher minimum teacher salary range. The raises will be reflected throughout the minimum salary schedule for teachers of all experience levels.
In his floor speech, Cozart noted that 67 public school districts here already pay teachers salaries above the minimum schedule, and those districts won't be affected by his legislation, which passed in the House 91-0.
He added that some superintendents are concerned about how to pay the higher salaries down the road. Financially depressed districts will receive money from the state on an as-needed basis to implement the raises, but those districts will remain on the hook to pay the increased amount after the state money runs out in four years.
Cozart promised to work with lawmakers over the next four years to ensure that state funding for teacher salaries is increased.
"I will not let them down," Cozart said from the well of the House.
Hutchinson said he had no concerns about continued funding beyond the four-year period contemplated in Cozart's legislation.
"It will be a continued part of the Adequacy Committee's discussions and recommendations well after the four years has passed," Hutchinson said, referring to the panel of legislators who review Arkansas' public school funding needs every two years.
Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, applauded Hutchinson's and the legislature's efforts to address teacher pay. He also confirmed that some superintendents do have some unease.
How the $60 million will be disbursed to the affected school districts will be promulgated through rules later this year, and it could be several years before there's clarity about how depressed districts will maintain the higher salary levels once the temporary state funds run dry.
"If you're a superintendent looking at the unknown, it can be a little troubling," Abernathy said, but he added that school administrators trust the legislative process.
Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, has advocated for a larger teacher pay increase, and he called HB1145 a "50-cents-an-hour bill for teachers" from the House floor on Thursday.
"This is a start," Cozart responded. "We're going to try to get our teachers up. We're going to try to get more competitive with other states."
House Democratic Leader Rep. Charles Blake, D-Little Rock, said the General Assembly should take additional action during this session to raise the salaries of all teachers.
"We should be making sure that if we can find [$97 million] to do a tax cut that we can take care of our other priorities," Blake said, referring to a proposed income tax cut also before the Legislature. "You can find the priority of the state by following our checkbook."
Legislators, as part of their biennial study of kindergarten through 12th-grade education funding, gave school districts a 2 percent increase in funding for teachers' salaries.
Those recommendations are used to configure the state's per-student funding formula, but school districts aren't bound to spend that money on teacher pay.
In recent years, legislators have questioned that funding formula's effectiveness, and the House and Senate Education Committees will commission a study of the funding formula to identify potential tweaks.
The study and the biennial education adequacy report started after 2003 legislation passed in the wake of the Arkansas Supreme Court's Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee decision that concluded the state's public school funding system fell short and was unconstitutional. The biennial study sets out the per-student funding amount, which is $6,781 per student in the 2018-19 school year.
A Section on 02/08/2019