Gov. Asa Hutchinson's proposal to raise the average teacher salary in Arkansas by $2,000 over the next two years would be paid for by shifting $25 million within legislative committee recommendations for public school funding.
In their biennial review of educational funding adequacy, the state House and Senate Education committees last year recommended a $99.7 million increase in overall public school funding in fiscal 2022 and another increase of $86.9 million in fiscal 2023.
The committees' recommendations would be the largest increase in more than a decade, something Hutchinson said he supports.
"But I also felt comfortable in saying we need to raise teacher pay by $2,000 over the next two years," he said at the superintendents symposium of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators on Thursday. "I say that because when I talk to superintendents and school leaders, it is the ability to attract teachers. It is the ability to keep teachers, particularly in our rural areas, in our smaller communities, and this will help."
The state began reviewing school funding every two years because of 2003 legislation stemming from the Arkansas Supreme Court's Lake View School District v. Huckabee decision, which found that the state's system for deciding how much money to give each school district was inadequate and inequitable.
In October, the education committees called for increasing the foundation per-student funding from $6,985 to $7,131 in fiscal 2022 and $7,281 in fiscal 2023, an increase of 2.3% each year.
The bulk of state funding for schools comes from Minimum Foundation Program Aid, which has flexibility on how it is spent.
Hutchinson said Thursday that his administration is still "working out all the mechanisms" of his proposal.
"We know we are going to have to make sure that we support those school districts in which it is a financial challenge to do this," he said. "We are also aware that there is going to be a lot of direct federal money that is going to be coming to our districts, which I applaud and am thrilled with. But there is a lot of money flowing in a lot of different ways through the system this year. Our responsibility is to channel our state portion to make sure that we can accomplish that goal of raising our teacher salary."
TEACHER SALARY EQUALIZATION
Legislation to enact the governor's proposal would create a new funding category, the Teacher Salary Equalization categorical fund, according to an outline of the proposal that Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key distributed to the state Board of Education at a meeting Friday.
Like other categorical funds, the new fund would have restrictions on how the money can be used -- in this case, the use is teacher salaries -- and distribute funding per what the department calls average daily membership.
If the governor's proposed legislation is passed, the state Department of Education would review salary data each year, and districts and charter schools whose average teacher salary falls below the target average salary of $51,822 would be eligible for money from the Teacher Salary Equalization fund.
The proposal would pull $15 million from an enhanced salary fund pitched in the adequacy recommendations by the education committees. That fund was meant to help school districts cover the cost of raising minimum teacher pay from $31,800 to $36,000 a year by 2023, as required by Act 170 of 2019.
An additional $10 million would be redirected from the proposed education funding increase.
Hutchinson's proposal "will begin narrowing the gap" between the highest and lowest average teacher salaries in the state, a discrepancy of more than $21,000, according to Key's outline. The Lead Hill School District has the lowest average salary for teachers, and the Fayetteville School District has the highest.
David Hopkins, superintendent of the Clarksville School District, said, "We are really excited to receive the proposed 2.3% increase."
One of the reasons for that is "we have really struggled to make ends meet and, in that struggle, we haven't been able to add [to] our teacher salary schedule as we would like to, and we are above the minimums. But to see the 2.3%, we believe would give us the ability to go ahead and add to and continue to try to increase our teacher salary schedule," he said.
He said his concern is that "maybe that could be reduced for those districts that have met that minimum salary schedule to divert money to other districts that maybe haven't."
"I know that it is important that those districts receive the funding somewhere, but I hope that it is not taken away from the 2.3% that we are looking forward to try to increase our salaries also," Hopkins told Hutchinson at the superintendents symposium Thursday. "I was just wondering if you could give a little more insight on how the plan is there."
Hutchinson said 2.3% is a robust increase that could help school districts increase teacher salaries by themselves, but the $15 million fund would help school districts in terms of meeting the beginning salary increase, particularly those that are struggling financially.
Increasing teacher pay by $2,000 over two years was among the goals Hutchinson announced in his State of the State speech Tuesday.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said afterward that large discrepancies in teacher pay among school districts cripples many smaller and rural school districts, and that she agrees with the governor's goal.
"I think the approach has to be refined, so that we are not continuing the gap but trying to close the gap," she said.
House Education Committee Chairman Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, and Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, the previous Senate Education Committee chairwoman, said they wanted to see more details about where the funding would come from with regard to their adequacy recommendations.
"It's a great goal. We still need to see where the money's coming from," Cozart said Tuesday. "I know there's some talk about taking money out of what we'd already presented to the schools from the adequacy fund for the next biennium, and I probably would want to see that and how he's going to do it, but I don't want to steal money from something we already set up."
English said moving around public education dollars impacts the whole matrix.
"I think we're doing the best we can, and I think in a lot of cases we are in better shape," she said. "I do applaud the fact that we do have a funding formula. It may not be as much money as everyone would like for it to be, but at least we have this base amount that goes to every single student."
House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said she would be hard-pressed to vote against any raise for teachers.
"I always feel like we could go further than we do, but I'm encouraged that that's something we're talking about," she said. "I truly believe we don't give our teachers enough credit, enough money, enough time to do all the things that they need to do."
The average teacher salary in Arkansas in fiscal 2020 was $49,822, according to the National Education Association.
Among the 16 states in the Southern Regional Education Board, Arkansas is in the bottom quartile for average teacher salary.
Information for this article was contributed by Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.