The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Dave Perozek reports today on the benefit provided to some Arkansas school districts by the notoriously low salaries paid to teachers in Oklahoma, which provides a stream of qualified new recruits to Arkansas districts across the state line. Perozek interviews one teacher who recently left Tulsa’s Union Public Schools to come to Bentonville.

The reason? The schools pay a living wage:

Alexander landed a job as a teacher and coach at the Bentonville School District’s West High School in Centerton to start the 2016-17 school year. He’s making about $18,000 more than he did in Oklahoma, he said.

A teacher with no experience and a bachelor’s degree in the Union School District starts at $32,697 and can earn up to $49,142 after 35 years. In Bentonville, the same teacher earns $45,714 in year one and $57,734 in year 25, according to both districts’ salary schedules.

Watching from afar what’s happening in Oklahoma has been “heartbreaking,” Alexander said.

Oklahoma’s self-inflicted wounds regarding school funding have worked to the benefit of nearby states that pay their teachers better salaries, as I discussed recently. Teacher pay in Oklahoma should soon rise — somewhat — thanks to a partial victory won by striking educators.

But before Arkansas congratulates itself for outpacing its neighbor to the west, we should take a look at the huge disparity in salaries within our state. New teachers in Bentonville may make almost $46,000 a year, but new teachers in many other Arkansas districts will start the 2018-19 school year earning $31,800 — the state’s legislatively designated minimum figure for first-year pay. That’s less than what new teachers in Tulsa are making.

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The four big Northwest Arkansas districts — Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale — have the highest starting pay in the state, the most recent salary schedule analysis from the state Education Department shows. All start new recruits above $44,000. (Bentonville’s starting salary appears to have increased slightly since this schedule was created.)

Meanwhile, about 30 districts statewide paid teachers a starting salary of $31,400 in 2017-18, the schedule shows. Most of these appear to be in North Central Arkansas (including counties such as Baxter, Boone and Newton) or in South or East Arkansas (counties including Prarie, Pike and Desha). In 2017, the legislature bumped up the floor for new teacher pay to $31,800 beginning in the upcoming school year.

Note here that minimum pay isn’t the same as average pay. Some districts may pay new teachers a middling salary but give generous raises to classroom veterans or those with advanced degrees. In Little Rock, for example, a new teacher with a B.A. is scheduled to earn just $34,865, but the maximum salary for a teacher with an M.A. and many years of experience is $69,919. (That’s still less than in the four NWA districts mentioned above, however, where maximum pay is from $71,000 to $76,000.)

But it should come as no surprise that many of the same districts with the lowest starting salaries also have among the lowest maximum salaries. It should also come as no surprise that these districts struggle to recruit teachers. Teachers, being human, will tend to gravitate toward those jobs where they can make a decent wage.

In other words, poor schools in Arkansas face much the same situation as schools in Oklahoma. It’s difficult to recruit qualified staff, and those who stay are often demoralized by their inability to make a living wage. Wealthier districts pull teachers from disadvantaged ones.

In one sense, the legislature is only partly responsible for teacher pay in Arkansas. Because districts have broad discretion over how they spend money, salaries are partly a function of policy decisions made by local voters, school boards and superintendents. Most of all, though, they are a function of the resources available in a given community — i.e, how much money is available. Benton and Washington counties are booming, and tax collections are high. Schools in the Delta and the rural Ozarks don’t have the same advantage.

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And that brings it back to the legislature: Any attempt to level the playing field between districts will have to come from the state level. But in recent years, state lawmakers have shown more interest in tax cuts than significant new investment in public schools.

It’s a little out of date, but this 2016 salary report from the Bureau of Legislative Research has a good ranking of minimum teacher pay by district. A new report from BLR should be out later this year.