School districts across the state are discovering a pitfall hidden in Gov. Sarah Sanders‘ signature Arkansas LEARNS Act, and realizing that working their way around it will be very expensive.
It’s hard to disagree that state funding to bring everyone up to the $50K minimum, a promise of the LEARNS Act, is great.
The far less lauded caveat is that the new legislation erases state-guaranteed minimum salary steps, meaning districts who want to reward experience and graduate degrees will now have to do that on their own dime. Unless districts are OK with paying a 15-year veteran teacher with a master’s degree the same amount as a rookie fresh out of undergrad, they’re going to have to come up with the difference.
Plenty of people saw it coming, but questions about this looming salary debacle got brushed off during February’s rushed Education Committee hearings on the massive vouchers+privatization bill with anti-CRT and don’t-say-gay flair.
When Rep. DeAnn Vaught (R-Horatio) asked Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva how districts would fill counselor and librarian positions that require advanced degrees if those degrees would no longer be rewarded with additional pay, Oliva offered a slippery response.
“We need those folks. We need school counselors. There are students in great need of mental health services,” he said. “How that salary schedule looks at compensating for advanced degrees and credentials, oftentimes many school districts may extend those educators’ contracts where they work extra days, and they’ll be able to determine how to recognize and compensate those educators based on number of days, based on advanced credentials, based on years of service. But there is a definitely a need for folks who have advanced credentials … we do value that education.”
One of the handy infographics the governor’s office put out around this time suggested there was nothing to fear. In fact, it said rumors that teachers would no longer be compensated for experience and graduate degrees were a “myth.”
The ugly truth is that both sides are right in their own ways. Arkansas LEARNS proponents are technically correct: Sponsors never committed to more than the $50,000 salary minimum and $2,000 raises for teachers already making more than that. And Arkansas LEARNS opponents are correct in spirit: In her rush to claim the school choice education governor crown, Sanders left local school districts holding the bag for millions.
In the Little Rock School District, CFO Kelsey Bailey estimates that with the state-funded, LEARNS-mandated bumps in place, keeping the current salary structure to continue paying teachers more for experience and degrees will cost $12.5 million. The state is expected to pay only $4.4 million of that.
A story in the Saline Courier earlier this week expounded on a similar challenge in Bryant. When the district brings all teachers to the new $50,000 minimum, up from the district’s current starting salary of $42,000, that’s an $8,000 difference for which the state picks up the full tab. But keeping things fair by matching that $8,000 for all teachers would be expensive for the district, since the state will be sending only $2,000 of that per teacher. The Bryant superintendent estimates they’ll be short by about $5 million, Randal Seyler reported.
Of course, it’s not as straightforward as that. Legislators continue to tinker with the state budget for next year, meaning those guys might surprise us with extra school money. Federal dollars cover some teacher salaries, and savvy school administrators know how to move that money around to make it go further.
But it’s hard to see a path where districts that want to provide meaningful pay scales for their educators aren’t on the hook for significant new expenses. That LEARNS requires local districts to set salary schedules but declines to fund any piece of those schedules feels a lot like an unfunded mandate.
If you didn’t anticipate this very conundrum then you’re the asshole. That’s the message from Alexa Henning, the venom-tongued spokesperson for Gov. Sanders who’s currently waging multiple Twitter battles on the subject. Behold Henning’s moral flexibility and fleet of foot:
While her own office put out infographics indicating rumors that teachers wouldn’t be paid for experience and education were a myth, Henning accurately notes above that if you really believed that, well, that’s on you.
So what would the LEARNS salary plan look like for a district without any extra cash to fund differentiated steps on a pay scale?
Westside Consolidated School District shows us with a new salary schedule that’s likely to be the norm for Arkansas public school teachers in districts without robust property tax bases. Practically all teachers in the district will make the exact same amount in the 2023-2024 school year, regardless of what they bring to the classroom.
It’s true that all the teachers at Westside are getting a raise. It’s also true that some of them are getting robbed.
The fair and respectful thing to do might have been to bump up all salaries equally or proportionally, or even for the state to allocate the money but let districts decide how to divvy it up. That would get complicated, though. The talking points Sanders could feed to national media wouldn’t be nearly as good.
The paradox that raising minimum teacher salaries to $50,000 will cost veteran educators the professional respect they’re due might just be an unintended consequence of this 144-page omnibus bill that raced through the legislative process at reckless speed. But after so many attacks from the pro-voucher crowd, all those accusations that public school educators are selfish indoctrinators who can’t be trusted, it’s hard not to suspect this consequence was specifically intended.