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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Teacher pay hard row to hoe

by John Brummett | June 9, 2022 at 2:57 a.m.

Low-wage workers in the private sector have been getting pretty good raises. Their employers found across-the-board pay upgrades necessary to keep vital slots filled and services provided amid the changing worker attitudes of the re-emerging post-pandemic economy.

Public school teachers in Arkansas, meanwhile, can still earn as little as $36,000 a year even after doing their jobs twice during the pandemic--in-person and virtually.

They can be as low-paid as that even while cowering NRA-allegiant politicians suggest that the way to stop mass shootings in school is for teachers to become armed to engage in shootouts with sick wielders of assault weapons at the grade-school corral.

Superintendents warn that they are losing teachers at fairly troubling rates. It may have been that there was burnout during the pandemic. It may be that gun battle was never envisioned in the bachelor's degree program at the college of education.

Might, then, an across-the-board pay upgrade be in order--to, say, a living minimum salary for these professional people to whom our children get entrusted day after day in this unsafe world?

It turns out that, on June 30, the state will end its fiscal year to behold a massive surplus. The free-and-clear overage has been growing so fast that, in a Sunday column, I was two official projections behind when I referred to a paltry $600 million.

That was two months ago. First the projection was raised to $1 billion. Now, with days to go, it's forecast to be $1.47 billion.

All of that is the result of extra federal dollars propping up the state during the pandemic, then of tight budgeting based on uncertainty about pandemic recovery, then of a vigorous return to full market activity, then of that market activity being fueled by inflation--by those aforementioned raises getting spent, which they always do at the lower-income levels, by necessity for those living by slightly bigger paycheck to slightly bigger paycheck.

So, flush as all that, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has floated the idea of raising the minimum teacher pay to $46,000 and giving all teachers raises of $4,000--to compensate teachers more fairly, keep them on the job and make Arkansas competitive with other states.

At present, the greatest likelihood is that the proposal won't fly. Perhaps it shouldn't.

It is a good rule of state budgeting that one-time money should go to one-time expenses, not ongoing ones. In this case, Hutchinson wants to get raises in effect quickly and, as he puts it, "jump-start" them with one-time money that could then be absorbed on an ongoing basis in future-year budgeting.

Alas, that's taking a big pot of money you'll only have once and embedding it into ongoing budgets with higher salaries to be paid year after year. It'd be one thing to take the one-time money and pay hefty one-time bonuses. But that's not what is proposed.

Beyond that, the proposal as I understand it is to plug in $333 million for the jump-start and continue in subsequent years with $200 million in additional money in the school funding formula. That fails to equate to the tune of $133 million.

Some key legislators--and there indeed still are a few key legislators possessed of fiscal command and responsibility--are saying for the moment that the governor's proposal sounds great, and is needed, but is flawed and risky.

They worry about the war in Ukraine, still-rising fuel costs and dire warnings of worsening inflation or recession that would make that $133 million gap bigger if state collections slow or, even if rising healthily, fail to keep pace with state government's own costs.

It seems a better idea, I'm hearing, to hold horses until the next regular session in January, at which time more credible stock could be taken of the economic and budget situation.

The problem is we'll have a new governor, likely Sarah Sanders, whose only policy pronouncement on education is that our schools must be stopped from all this talk that America has an evil history with race discrimination, a civil war over slavery and other such fabrications.

When she steps into that second-floor governor's office in January, the first-day agenda will not be wokeness or the cancel-culture or Joe Biden or defunding the police, unless, in the latter case, she has to downsize the State Police amid a budget shortfall while faced with case law her dad the former governor embraced that declared public schools the off-the-top budget priority of the state.

The only way Sarah might reconcile a ridiculous campaign with responsible governing might be to stipulate that American history teachers only get next year's raises if signing oaths not to teach certain chapters from their textbooks.

But some woke cancel-culturists and deep-state socialists would probably just sue over that, calling it unequal protection under the law or some liberal nonsense.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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