Arkansas' minimum teacher salary of $32,800 a year in this school year ranks behind the minimum salary in five surrounding states -- a two-spot drop from the previous year -- a Bureau of Legislative Research report shows.
In 2019, the General Assembly and Gov. Asa Hutchinson enacted Act 170 to increase the minimum teacher salary from $31,800 in the 2018-19 school year to $32,800 in 2019-2o, to $33,800 in 2020-21, to $34,900 in 2021-22 and to $36,000 in the 2022-23 school year.
Last year, the Legislature and the governor also established a $60 million fund to distribute to affected school districts over four years to help them comply with the teacher salary schedule.
Oklahoma's minimum teacher pay of $36,601 is the highest among Arkansas' surrounding states in the 2019-20 school year and also was the highest in 2018-19, according to a 57-page Bureau of Legislative Research report to the House and Senate education committees Tuesday.
Minimum salaries in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana all exceeded Arkansas' minimum in the 2019-20 school year, after only Oklahoma, Tennessee and Mississippi's minimums topped Arkansas' in 2018-19, the bureau said in its report.
Arkansas' ranking on this factor among the 16 Southern Educational Regional Board states dropped from 12th in the 2018-19 school year to 14th in 2019-20, bureau legislative analyst Lori Bowen said.
Maryland, Delaware and Alabama had the highest minimum teacher salaries in the 2019-20 school year at $43,531, $42,666 and $40,873 a year, according to the bureau's report.
Afterward, House Education Committee Chairman Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said he's not sure where Arkansas will rank by the 2022-23 school year.
"Oklahoma was so hard to beat because they had a walkout, and so they had to boost it. So we are not going to get ahead of Oklahoma for a while," he said.
"This year is kind of a weird year," Cozart said in reference to the pandemic. "It is going to be about a year before we really figure out how this affects everybody's income and whatever."
Bowen told lawmakers that bureau officials found Arkansas' average teacher salary ranking fell between 2017-18 and 2018-19 compared with other states and those in the Southern Educational Regional Board based on information from the National Education Association.
In the 2018-19 school year, which is the most recent for which there is average teacher salary information available, the national average was $62,304, an increase of $1,536, or 2.5%, over the previous year, she said.
In contrast, Arkansas' average teacher salary increased by $342, or 0.7%, to $49,438 in 2018-19, Bowen said.
Arkansas' average teacher salary ranked 46th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the 2018-19 school year, which is a decline from the previous year when Arkansas ranked 44th, she said.
To account for cost-of-living differences, the bureau used the index published each year by the the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, and "when we applied this [cost-of-living] adjustment to each state salary amount, Arkansas' average salary does improve in ranking to 25th," Bowen said.
"Even though our ranking does improve, it still is a decline from a prior-year, cost-of-living-adjusted salary, [when] we had a ranking of 22nd," she said.
Arkansas' average teacher-pay ranking declined in comparison to states in the Southern Educational Regional Board from 12th in the 2017-18 school year to 13th in 2018-19, Bowen said.
Maryland, Delaware and Georgia had the highest average teacher salaries at $70,463, $63,662 and $57,095, in 2018-19, according to the bureau report.
"Oklahoma had the largest increase in [the 2018-19 school year] with an average salary increase of $6,097 [to $52,397]," Bowen said. "It was largely attributable to some salary changes in 2019, where they increased all of their salary levels for all degree preparation."
In comparison to surrounding states, Arkansas' average teacher salary ranking dropped from fifth in the 2017-18 school year to sixth in 2018-19, she said.
In the 2018-19 school year, Texas had the highest average salary among Arkansas' neighbors at $54,121, ahead of Oklahoma's $52,397; Tennessee's $51,349; Louisiana's $50,288; Missouri's $50,019; and Mississippi's $45,105, according to the bureau's report. Arkansas' average teacher salary was $49,438.
Afterward, Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Jane English, R-North Little Rock, said the salary report "is kind of the same thing we have been talking about forever."
Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, told his colleagues that he wants to see a comparison of the retirement benefits provided to Arkansas teachers compared with other states.
"I have heard a lot of teachers talk about how good the Arkansas Teacher Retirement [System] program is and, if it wasn't for that, even though the salaries were possibly lower than surrounding states, the retirement package sort of made up for that," he said.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said some states don't allow retired educators to get both Social Security and retirement benefits.
"Texas may pay more, but you are not going to get both your pension and your Social Security, unless things have changed dramatically in Texas, and they have not," she said. "I think that's important, too. That's one of the reasons people like coming to Arkansas, because they can get a pension and Social Security and there are states in where you cannot get both."