Brian Chilson
Teachers from across Arkansas came to the state Capitol during the 2023 legislative session to protest the Arkansas LEARNS bill, but to no avail. The law went into effect this year.

Here’s Part Two of our overview on the impacts of LEARNS on teachers. Part One covered the changes to teacher salaries. Part Two looks at other benefits and explains one of the most explosive changes in the law: the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which could leave Arkansas teachers more vulnerable to losing their job than they have been in decades. 

How does LEARNS impact paid leave for parents? 

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Districts and open-enrollment charter schools will now be newly eligible to get some state funding for up to 12 weeks paid maternity leave (no paternity leave). Teachers who have been full-time employees in public schools for at least one year will be eligible. The offer from the state is ostensibly to pay half, but in practice, districts or schools who opt in will incur significant new costs.

While districts or schools that choose to participate will get half the cost of a substitute teacher to fill in, they will still be on the hook for the entirety of the teacher’s salary while she is on maternity leave (partial or in full depending on the policy the district chooses). So for districts, that’s half of what they would have had to pay to offer a 12-week maternity policy before LEARNS (the salary of the substitute), but it’s still almost certainly significantly more than what districts would pay if they simply did not offer the policy at all. A district with no maternity policy is on the hook for the full cost of the substitute, but not the teacher who takes time off (and probably less than 12 weeks if it’s unpaid).

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Struggling districts could find the cost a challenge. Some LEARNS skeptics have argued that the funding is so clearly inadequate that the measure amounts to window dressing — a political talking point for Sanders that will be little used in practice. 

“We looked at it and debated it quite a bit,” said Jordan Frizzell, superintendent at the Star City School District, which this year set a flat pay schedule because of budget constraints after LEARNS bumped up first-year teacher salaries to $50,000. “It would be great, but I don’t see how we could take on that additional expense at this time. It’s just like the salary thing — the domino effect, I don’t know whether that was thought out.” 

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The deadline for participation in the maternity leave cost-sharing program is April 1, 2024. Thus far, according to the state Department of Education, just ten districts have submitted an agreement to participate in the maternity leave benefit: Nettleton, Kirby, Mount Ida, Two Rivers, Spring Hill, Greenbrier, Helena/West Helena, Marvell-Elaine, Beebe and Lee County. No charter schools have submitted the agreement. 

How does LEARNS change incentives or bonuses for teachers? 

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A previous provision for “incentives for teacher recruitment and retention in high priority districts” was repealed by LEARNS. This incentive paid a $5,000 signing bonus after the first year teaching in a designated high-needs district, a $4,000 bonus after their second and third years, and $4,000 each year thereafter. According to Arkansas Department of Education spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell, in fiscal year 2022, those incentive funds were disbursed to 841 teachers across 20 districts. 

That incentive program has now been replaced by the Merit Teacher Incentive Fund program. Teachers can now earn a bonus of up to $10,000 for good performance as measured by improvement in student test scores; serving as mentors to aspiring teachers; participating in yearlong residencies as an aspiring teacher; or instructing in subject areas or geographical areas that have had a teacher shortage, including public schools that have been historically understaffed. The state Board of Education can also reward other categories they choose. The poverty level and state rating of the school are among the factors to be considered in selecting recipients of the bonus. 

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The Merit Teacher Incentive Fund has $10 million to disburse, Mundell said, from a “reallocation of existing resources and new funding.” 

The state board has not yet created rules regarding the selection process for the program — including the program’s administration, selection process or timeline, identification of applicants or disbursement of funds. The date for such rules to be promulgated has not yet been determined, Mundell said.  

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How does LEARNS change the process for hiring teachers? 

The law has a new provision giving explicit guidelines for what public school district superintendents and principals must base hiring decisions on. It’s unclear how much this will change decisions in practice, but the language fits with the general preference in LEARNS for teacher quality as measured by metrics such as test scores as opposed to years of experience or level of education. 

The criteria are relatively vague: “performance,” “effectiveness” and “qualifications.” Effectiveness “shall be used as the primary criterion for making personnel decisions,” the law states. The law also explicitly states that “seniority and tenure shall not be used as the primary criterion when making decisions regarding the hiring, assignment, or dismissal of public school teachers and other public school employees.”

LEARNS repeals the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. What was the process for firing teachers before LEARNS? 

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One of the most controversial aspects of the law is its repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, a 1983 law (with some components dating back to rights enacted in 1970) that established that teachers could only be fired, non-renewed or suspended for “just and reasonable cause,” and established certain due process rights for teachers before that could happen. 

The Teacher Fair Dismissal Act established broad but relatively clear allowable reasons for firing a teacher because of performance issues. Teachers could be fired or non-renewed “for incompetent performance, conduct which materially interferes with the continued performance of the teacher’s duties, repeated or material neglect of duty, or other just and reasonable cause.” They could also be laid off due to district-wide reductions in the labor force due to budgetary or structural constraints (with an established process for making those decisions). 

Under the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, if a superintendent or school administrator believed that the teacher was having issues that might lead to termination or nonrenewal, they were required to tell the teacher in writing about the problems or difficulties. They were also required to document efforts taken to assist the teacher in improving to meet the district’s standards (in practice, compliance with this section of the law varied widely around the state). 

If an administrator wished to fire or suspend a teacher, the first required step was for the district superintendent to tell the teacher in writing that such a recommendation would be made to the board, with a description of each reason for the proposed termination under the law. If the firing was a non-renewal at the end of the year, the teacher had to be notified by May 1.

Once teachers received a notice, they had 30 days to request a hearing. If the recommended termination was happening during the school year, a teacher would typically be put on paid administrative leave. This made it advantageous for teachers to wait as long as possible to request a hearing, to extend the period of time when they would continue to be paid. 

This wrinkle in the law could be frustrating for administrators, who could wind up being forced to keep paying teachers who were no longer working and likely on their way out. Be that as it may, it would have been possible to adjust that timeline without ditching the law altogether. 

Once the board received the request for a hearing, it had to be set in no fewer than five and no more than 20 days, typically at the next board hearing (in practice, the board might have to extend that for logistical reasons like failure to get a quorum, which would mean more paid leave for the teacher, exacerbating the frustration described above). The hearing itself was more political in nature than legal; there was no requirement around following rules of evidence or other standards of the court system. An attorney representing the superintendent would present its case, perhaps with testimony from the superintendent or documentation supporting the allegations. The teacher, often represented by an attorney, would then present their side, and the board would vote. 

Under the law, a teacher with three years of experience could appeal the board’s decision in civil court, but in practice such appeals were exceedingly rare; the burden required for a civil judge to overrule a district board would be quite high.

Critics of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act complained that the law made it much too difficult to fire “bad teachers.” But this strains credulity; if a teacher had performance issues as described in the statute, administrators could end their employment by going through the proscribed process. The evidentiary standard was loose, and many (if not all) boards were typically deferential to superintendents. Assuming there was merit to the allegations, school boards would be unlikely to swat down a termination or non-renewal recommendation. 

That doesn’t mean administrators didn’t have real frustrations. But those concerns tended to focus on the paperwork hassle or the prolonged process. Some complained that teachers sometimes got off on a technicality related to the law’s required timeline or process. But if they wanted to fire a teacher for legitimate performance reasons and were willing to follow the rules, they could. 

“For administrators, you’ve taken away these deadlines and timelines you have to meet,” said Jacksonville North Pulaski School District superintendent Jeremy Owoh. He said that he would continue to communicate with teachers about expectations, document issues and be clear about the reasons for dismissing a teacher even if he was no longer mandated to do so by the law. “A great leader will still do due process,” he said. “You have to be fair.” 

As for the repeal of the law, Owoh said, “I don’t really think the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act was an issue. The issue was those timelines. And that’s where you have several people who maybe should have been terminated — they were able to stay home because of loopholes.”  

Teachers’ advocates argue that the law simply imposed due process requirements to ensure fairness, and gave teachers a means to defend themselves if the allegations were false or administrators were acting improperly. 

“There’s a lot of confusion — people felt that the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act was a way for the union to protect bad teachers, and that is absolutely not the truth,” said April Reisma, president of the Arkansas Education Association. “It was a way for good employees to protect themselves.”

With the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act gone, there is a good deal of uncertainty about how the firing or non-renewal process will take shape, leaving many teachers fearful for their job security. The repeal is yet another way that despite the pay raise, some teachers are feeling under attack and that the LEARNS Act devalues their profession.

What is the process for firing teachers after LEARNS?

It remains to be seen precisely how superintendents will proceed, but while some limits remain in place, LEARNS has turned the old process of documentation for specific transgressions into the Wild West. 

Teachers do still have certain rights regarding termination during the school year even after the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. While under contract, even without explicit state protections, they have basic due process rights as public employees. LEARNS, in a late amendment, specifically states that employees who are terminated during the year must get notice and the opportunity for a hearing. 

However, once the contract is over, teachers no longer have such due process rights for renewal, and LEARNS apparently imposes no such obligation on districts. It appears that teachers can have their contracts non-renewed with no hearing and with no reason offered for the decision.  

The requirement that administrators make efforts to alert teachers who are performing poorly in ways that could lead to termination, and work to help them improve, is likewise gone. 

While LEARNS states that hiring should be based on “performance,” “effectiveness” and “qualifications,” it offers no explicit guidance on what appropriate reasons for termination or nonrenewal might be. As a matter of state law, it’s not clear that administrators even need any reason at all. They still have to follow other employment laws — they would run afoul of federal law if they discriminated based on age or race, for example. But the process that mandated  documenting a legitimate justification is gone. 

That creates an odd dynamic for the hearings that will still remain — now only for teachers who are terminated during the school year. What exactly are superintendents trying to prove, or teachers trying to defend themselves against, if there is no statutory standard for what triggers dismissal? 

Most districts will likely follow guidance from the Arkansas School Boards Association, which proposes a procedure for termination during the school year relatively similar to the one in place for Teacher Fair Dismissal, with different timelines and without any explanation of what would qualify as a just cause. Such hearings would potentially be even more purely political, since no specific standards will exist regarding what superintendents are supposed to prove. 

One potentially problematic difference: While under the previous law, teachers could request a private hearing, these hearings now must be public. That could make teachers less likely to contest a recommendation if they don’t want the allegations aired in public. It could also present serious privacy problems for cases that require the testimony of a student. 

Whatever form those hearings take, that still leaves no protection at all for non-renewal. The May 1 deadline — along with all of the other requirements for notice, just cause, and a hearing if requested — is gone. What remains is a culture of fear: Teachers will have no way to defend themselves — or potentially even know what happened — if the accusations against them are false or if they are being punished for factors beyond their control. If administrators are bad actors or having their own performance issues, teachers may be more reluctant to raise concerns. The culture of fear is only heightened by vague provisions in LEARNS that ban “indoctrination.”

“Now it can be arbitrary whether you keep your position or not,” Reisma said, who added that the Arkansas Education Association will continue to represent members facing dismissal. “You can be dismissed for literally any reason and there is no protection.”

In an Arkansas Times column this weekend, retired teacher Shelley Smith described the anxious atmosphere among teachers this year: 

Another educator told me this: “Staff worry now that without the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act they may do or say something that will end their time at our district … it was made very clear to us at the back to school workshops that it was gone and we could be non-renewed easily.”

Without Teacher Fair Dismissal in place, I’ve heard numerous stories of administrative bullying towards teachers and some accounts of blatantly unwarranted firings. Odd, considering the critical teacher shortage.

The stress is wearing on teachers’ physical and mental health. I know several who have made trips to the hospital in the past few months due to extremely high blood pressure, suspected heart attacks, and other stress-related illnesses. It is hard to pinpoint how many teacher resignations happened in December, but anecdotally there have been many more than normal.

Losing the May 1 deadline is a particular point of concern, as teachers fear that they won’t know where they stand in time to make plans for the next school year. 

Older or retired teachers with experience prior to the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act have described a chaotic system with lots of uncertainty and churn every summer. Personnel decisions were sometimes made for capricious, personal or unclear reasons with no real recourse for teachers. With the presumption of renewal gone, teachers may be reluctant to buy a home, settle in a community or commit to a school long-term. 

“I would assume that the majority of schools, superintendents and administrators are going to do the right thing,” ​said Star City School District superintendent Jordan Frizzell​. “Now, just like anything else, there’s bad apples. And it does make things easier for schools to move on from staff. … If I’m a teacher, I could see that being a worry. It’ll take time to see how that impacts things.”

Frizzell said his focus will remain on helping teachers improve rather than having to resort to terminating their employment. “That’s what we’ve done time and time and time again. … The Teacher Fair Dismissal Act was just a longer process. But at the end of the day, I can only speak for Star City and rural schools — the teacher pool [is very small]. If I post a math job today at the high school, I guarantee I don’t have more than three or four applicants. Even with our teachers that we have issues or concerns with, or they’re just simply struggling, we do everything we can to support those teachers.”

In practice, superintendents may prefer to use non-renewal rather than firing during the year given the lack of process requirements. Some may still choose to compile documentation and provide an explanation to avoid wrongful termination claims under different laws, but that will be purely optional. 

When the state board of education previously waived the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act for certain districts under its control a few years back, attorney Clayton Blackstock sounded the alarm about the stakes for teachers in an article on the Arkansas Education Association’s website: “The district can just let your contract expire on June 30th and never say a thing. You could show up to school in August and learn for the first time that your school district decided, over the summer, not to rehire you. No school board action is needed; the superintendent need not do a thing.”

What other rights do teachers lose with the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act? 

* Under the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, the school district was mandated to maintain a personnel file for each teacher, which the teacher could review and make copies of. The teacher also had the right to submit for inclusion in the file written information in response to any of the material. All of that is now gone as a statutory requirement, though many schools or districts may be choosing to continue the practice. 

* Teachers no longer have 30 days to make a decision once offered a renewal contract for the following year, as guaranteed by the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. In theory, an administrator could demand that teachers sign a contract by the end of the day or lose their position. 

* Teachers likewise no longer have the right, granted under the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, to rescind on a renewal contract, no later than ten days after the end of the school year (which afforded teachers some leeway if they got another offer or had a change in circumstances). 

* In a move reminiscent of the legislature’s efforts to restrict local gun control laws, districts are barred from offering more rights or protections to teachers than the barebones protections imposed by LEARNS. The rumor is that this may have been in response to a Little Rock School Board member tweeting that the district would simply re-enact the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act as district policy. It’s a strange provision, as local districts often have unique HR protocols or rules around hiring and firing, some of which involve hot-button issues and would now arguably run afoul of the law, though that may not be a fight anyone wants to pick. 

How will the LEARNS changes in the aggregate impact teacher retention? 

Zooming out, Olivia Gardner — director of education policy for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families — applauded the $50,000 salary floor for teachers enacted by LEARNS, but expressed concerns that the law failed to address the retention issues that have been a major problem for many of the state’s districts. 

“A raise in the minimum salary was sorely needed,” Gardner said. “I had concerns when LEARNS was passed, and still do, that while the $50,000 minimum salary may help educators to an extent, the legislation doesn’t adequately address the educator retention issues we are plagued with. Long time educators are unlikely to see yearly raises in the way that they did previously when the state set their salary schedule, and there is no longer a pay increase for receiving a master’s degree — which is troublesome because we should be rewarding educators for seeking additional education. Add this together with the elimination of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which has left many educators fearful, and we still have a huge retention issue on our hands. We rely on educators who have been in the classroom for a long time in so many ways, and unfortunately, I don’t see much in the LEARNS Act that supports them or helps them want to stay in the classroom.”

What about salaries for other school employees? 

While LEARNS bumped teacher pay, it offered no such raise for classified employees (positions that do not require a teaching license, such as janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, secretaries and aides). 

“They got completely ignored, and that’s a major issue,” Reisma said. “They are an essential part of education. Some of them have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet, but they still stick it out because they love the kids and they love what they’re doing.” 

Districts must establish a pay schedule for classified employees, but the state-mandated minimums are below the state minimum wage of $11, so the minimum wage applies. 

The Democratic alternative to LEARNS, the RAISE Act, proposed raising the minimum wage for classified employees to $15 per hour, but RAISE was dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled legislature. 

“I don’t know why they would disregard a whole classification of people in the state of Arkansas,” Reisma said. “These folks kept us going through COVID. They’re the ones who drove the buses out to those kids, who fed those kids. These folks put their lives on the line. At the time, people were saying they were saints, they were angels. And now they’re just kicked to the side, with absolutely no raise.” 

What about employment protections for other school employees? 

Along with the repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, LEARNS also repealed the Public School Fair Hearing Act. While less detailed than the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, the law offered classified employees similar rights of a written explanation, notice and the opportunity for a hearing. That is now gone. As with teachers, those fired during the year will still have due process rights, but those non-renewed will not. 

Other impacts on teachers

Among the other changes impacting teachers and school employment: the law creates a “Teacher Academy Scholarship Program,” which helps with tuition and other costs for people in teacher certification programs; a program repaying teachers’ federal student loans if they teach in certain schools is bumped from $3,000 to $6,000 per year; superintendents are now required to consult with teachers before hiring a principal; school districts can now employ one or more assistant superintendents. 

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