Schools in state take step to receive funding

Charter pay-law waivers given up

The exterior of eStem East Village Junior High School in Little Rock is shown in this July 3, 2018 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Sixteen charter schools and charter school systems asked on Friday to give up their waivers of the state teacher salary law to clear the way for getting state funds to raise their beginning teacher salaries to $50,000.

The Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel unanimously approved the rescission of the salary law waiver for each of the schools and systems. The panel votes will now go to the state Board of Education for review and final decisions.

The schools and school systems -- including the large LISA Academy, eStem, Academics Plus and Arkansas Virtual Academy -- asked that their salary law waivers be rescinded in the wake of lawmakers approving the Arkansas LEARNS Act earlier this year.

That law, Act 237 of 2023, raises the minimum salary for every public school teacher from $36,000 to $50,000 for the coming school year and provides a $2,000 increase for every teacher already making $50,000 or more.

The state is providing the money for those increases to the public schools.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are excused from some laws and regulations that govern more traditional schools and, as a result, can be more experimental. Each charter school or system operates according to the terms of a multiyear, renewable contract, or charter, with the state. Each contract or charter lists the rules and laws that are waived for the school as well as detailing their student achievement goals.

On Friday, the 16 schools asked to rescind their previously approved waiver of Arkansas Code Annotated 6-17-2403. The statute required school boards to establish teacher pay schedules that provide annual increments for education and experience, a base salary, and a minimum salary for a teacher with a master's degree. The law also established for this school year the $36,000 minimum starting salary.

The LEARNS Act alters A.C.A. 6-17-2403 to say that school boards shall pay classroom teachers a minimum base salary of $50,000. To be eligible for funds to implement the minimum base salary, a public school district shall revise each teacher contract by the 2023-24 school year to require that each teacher be employed at least 190 days a school year.

The LEARNS Act also states that the district must "not have a waiver of teacher salary requirements."

The schools that asked to rescind their salary law waiver and were approved by the Charter Authorizing Panel are:

River Valley Virtual Academy in Van Buren, Arkansas Arts Academy, Scholarmade Achievement Place of Arkansas, Vilonia Pathways Academy, Centerpoint Academy of Agriculture and Skilled Trades, Future School of Fort Smith, Arkansas Virtual Academy, Academics Plus Charter Schools, Westwind School for Performing Arts, Graduate Arkansas, Hope Academy of Northwest Arkansas, Friendship Aspire Academy, Exalt Academy, Haas Hall Academy, LISA Academy, and eStem Public Charter Schools.

Kimberly Mundell, a spokesperson for the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Friday that not all of the state's charter schools or charter systems had the waiver of the minimum salary law.

"Out of those that did, all have rescinded their waiver except for the Excel Center, but the Excel Center does not receive state funds," Mundell said.

Also on Friday, the charter panel that is made up of Arkansas Department of Education staff and interested citizens approved:

An amendment to the Arkansas Virtual Academy charter school to allow in-person instruction of up to four days a week for students whose families desire face-to-face instruction for their children at a community-hosted site in Sparkman.

An change in grades served at the Hope Academy of Northwest Arkansas, from kindergarten-through-sixth grade to kindergarten-through-fourth grade.