Governor Hutchinson might wish he’d never mentioned his plan to boost Arkansas’s lagging teacher pay, but it’s too late now.

While the governor folded to ultra-conservative lawmakers who would rather use the state surplus for tax cuts that will mainly benefit the top 10%, Arkansas teachers and their supporters show no signs of backing down.

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Around 2,000 educators, parents, students and other advocates thronged the Capitol Sunday to lobby for using some of the state’s record-high surplus to move starting teacher salaries in Arkansas up from their current ranking of 48th in the country.

“Teacher appreciation is compensation,” teacher LeRon McAdoo told the crowd that clustered around the Capitol steps after trudging up Capitol Avenue behind a volunteer contingent from the Supersonic Storm of Southwest High marching band. An educator of more than two decades, McAdoo talked about routinely buying books, clothes and food for his students.

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A Parkview student and member of Students Demand Action for Gun Sense advocates for raises for her teachers at the block party preceding Sunday’s rally at the Capitol.

“If I cannot support my own babies, how can I support the ones I’m teaching?’ Pine Bluff teacher Erica Mauldin said.

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David Tollett, a Republican state representative from Marvell and an educator of 21 years, took the microphone at the rally, offering proof that Democrats aren’t the only ones who want to boost teacher pay. He rejected what’s become a talking point from other Republicans that we should wait for the results of an adequacy study before taking any action on teacher salary. Those opponents to raising teacher pay are pressuring districts to give one-time bonuses instead, using federal pandemic money instead of any state funding.

A volunteer contingent of the Supersonic Storm marching band from Southwest High School played at the block party and rally.

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“We don’t need a report to know teacher pay is inadequate,” he said. “When covid shut down schools, Arkansas educators answered the call and opened them back up, even at great personal risk to themselves.”

Raises for Arkansas teachers haven’t kept up with inflation, or with the rising salaries in neighboring states that are well-positioned to poach our teachers, Tollett said.

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Tollett’s fellow educator/legislator, Democrat Megan Godfrey of Springdale, hinted that the week ahead could be grueling.

Kelis supports raises for Arkansas teachers (probably).

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The governor did not put teacher raises on the call for this week’s special legislative session, meaning the legislature can’t even consider them unless 2/3 of the lawmakers vote to add teacher pay to the agenda. And considering Arkansas’s hyper-conservative Republican supermajority that tends to serve its wealthy benefactors at the expense of average Joes, such a vote is not likely.

Hutchinson limited his call to lawmakers to passing tax cuts and sending $50 million to schools to be used not on raises, but on guns, fortified doors, security guards and other mostly unproven security measures being recommended by the Asa-appointed pro-gun Arkansas School Safety Commission.

Rep. Megan Godfrey (D-Springdale) prepares to speak at the rally for teacher pay raises while Rep. Nicole Clowney (D-Fayetteville) snaps a photo and event emcee Gwen Faulkenberry looks on.

“Even though sometimes what happens in this building will break your heart and make you feel like giving up, please know that so many of us support you,” Godfrey said.

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The legislators who, by and large, are declining to even consider teacher raises, happen to be paid quite well. They all make more than $42,000 a year for their elected part-time gig, and also get reimbursed for mileage to and from Little Rock, plus a set per diem amount for food and other expenses. It can really add up. In 2021, for example, Republican state Rep. Jim Dotson of Bentonville collected $40,321 in expenses, and that’s on top of his salary.

In contrast, Arkansas teachers get no mileage reimbursements for driving to and from work, and no per diem payouts. The minimum starting salary for full-time teaching jobs in Arkansas is $36,000.

Democratic legislators Fred Love, Andrew Collins, Denise Ennett, Joyce Elliott, Nicole Clowney, Jamie Scott and Clarke Tucker were among the advocates who showed up for teachers Sunday. (There were likely more lawmakers I didn’t spot in the crowd).

Gwen Faulkenberry, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist and editorial director for the nonprofit group Arkansas Strong, said she hopes teachers win this week’s sprint and get their raises, but urged educators to continue on the marathon path to more pay and respect for their profession.

Julie Hardee
Hundreds showed up Sunday despite the heat to rally for teacher pay raises.

“There are 30,000 teachers in this state, and every one of them has a sphere of influence. Students came here today to support us, and our communities know what you’re worth. We can stick together and vote.”