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Gov. Asa Hutchinson's proposal to raise the minimum teacher salary by $1,000 annually, starting in the next school year, received the endorsement of a joint legislative panel Tuesday as part of its recommendations on how to spend more than $3 billion on public education in the next two years.

Legislators also approved increases to the per-student funding formula to support 2 percent teacher pay raises, special education, transportation, and maintenance costs. The House and Senate Education committees, meeting jointly, also agreed to a wholesale review of the state's education funding formula. The changes would apply in the 2019-20 school year.

But the committee rebuffed an alternative proposal by Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, to increase the minimum starting teacher salary to $36,000 next school year and 2 percent annually thereafter. Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, and several other Republican lawmakers said that, although they'd like to raise the minimum salary more, the governor's proposed increase from $31,800 to $36,000 over four years was enough.

"Moving forward, $4,000 is aggressive over four years," Clark said. "It's the right thing to do for us to be responsible here on the Education Committee. To try to go forward more, I like it as the son and son-in-law of teachers, but it's not something we can do responsibly. It's not what we need to do to stay competitive."

Walker disagreed, noting that online retailer Amazon recently increased its minimum hourly wage to $15 an hour. A full-time employee at that rate would earn $31,200 a year.

A salary of "$36,000 for now is not a huge increase," Walker said. "It's something that we ought to do. ... Teachers ought to be paid more than people who push boxes or who do most manual labor."

Minimum teacher pay of Arkansas and its neighbors

The recommendations approved Tuesday will be included in a report to the governor and both chambers of the General Assembly next month in anticipation of the 2019 regular legislative session. The session starts Jan. 14.

The report is required every two years because of a series of laws passed in the aftermath of several Arkansas Supreme Court decisions on kindergarten-through-12th-grade education in the state. Education accounts for more than half of the state's annual general revenue budget, and the governor takes the committee's report under advisement when generating the proposed budget.

Hutchinson, a Republican, earlier this year unveiled his plan to increase the minimum starting teacher salary; he said it's estimated to cost about $60 million a year.

"My plan is to increase the minimum teacher salary by 4,000 dollars over 4 years, and this will be funded through increases in adequacy funding," Hutchinson said in a statement Tuesday. "School districts will raise the salary levels for teachers with more experience based upon the specific circumstances of the district. Every district has different factors in play. Once the legislature agrees upon adequacy funding then my administration will develop our budget plan."

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, a retired teacher, on Tuesday expressed concern that the minimum salary for teachers with multiple years of experience wouldn't receive comparable increases. Under current law, there are set minimum salaries for teachers from zero to 15 years of experience, with the minimum salary increasing with each year of experience.

State Education Commissioner Johnny Key allayed Elliott's concerns, saying teachers throughout the salary schedule would receive a $1,000 bump if they're making the minimum amount.

"In the governor's proposal, it contemplates adjusting each step of the minimum salary schedule accordingly, which is what this committee has done over the last two bienniums with making adjustments to the minimum salary schedule," Key said.

The House Education Committee chairman, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said he or another member of the committee planned to sponsor legislation in 2019 that would include a $1,000 minimum salary boost for teachers of all experience levels. Cozart, along with the Senate Education Committee chairman, Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, sponsored legislation in 2017 that increased the minimum teacher salary by $400 a year at all levels of the minimum salary schedule in both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years.

In the area comprising Arkansas and its six surrounding states, Arkansas ranked fourth in minimum teacher salary in the 2017-18 school year, according to the Bureau of Legislative Research. Mississippi offers teachers the highest minimum salaries among surrounding states, at $34,390.

Tracey-Ann Nelson, executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, noted that the minimum salary increase won't help teachers who make more than the minimum. Currently, 173 school districts pay teachers salaries below the governor's $36,000 goal. There are 238 school districts in Arkansas and 25 open-enrollment charter school districts.

"For all other teachers earning above the minimum salary schedule, the actual effect of this proposal is less clear since any salary above the state minimum is a local district decision," Nelson said. "If lawmakers are going to get serious about increasing teacher salary, it will have to be addressed in a more comprehensive way moving forward."

The House and Senate Education committees on Tuesday also voted to support increasing by 2 percent the amount allotted to school districts for teacher salaries. However, districts aren't required to spend that money on teacher salaries and in many cases don't, which has frustrated legislators.

Nelson said the 2 percent increase doesn't keep pace with inflation.

"The consumer price index data that the Bureau of Legislative Research reported to the House and Senate Education committees reflected an increase of around 2.5 percent, so any increases less than that would fall short of that goal," Nelson said. "Educators have continued to honor their commitment to students despite the lack of investment."

Lawmakers were divided over the need for increases to the "catastrophic occurrences" fund -- a program that reimburses schools for educating students with severe disabilities. The same split occurred in 2016, causing adequacy talks to stall and the committee to miss its November deadline to issue its final report.

House members approved a $4 million increase, to bring the special-education allotment to $17,020,000 in fiscal 2020 and 2021. The Senate rejected the $4 million increase, so separate recommendations from the two chambers will be included in this year's report.

Several senators said they'd like more study to be done to determine the amount of and reason for the fund shortfall before approving an increase. The Bureau of Legislative Research reported that school districts in the 2016-17 school year were reimbursed for only $11 million of nearly $30 million of eligible expenditures.

Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said the catastrophic occurrences fund is an example of how the public school funding matrix has fallen short, forcing administrators to pull money allocated for teacher salary increases to fund special-education shortfalls.

Abernathy praised the education committees for committing to an extensive study of the education funding formula.

"The matrix has served a role over the years helping legislators determine needed funding; however, we are now seeing the weakness of the matrix without a good method to address the shortcomings," Abernathy said. "The most important recommendation made today was to conduct a study on education. This has been our No. 1 recommendation for a couple of years now.

"We would like to see a full study on where we are now in education, where do we want to be in 10 years, and how do we get there? Many things have changed in education over the past decade, and it is time we revisit what we want and what we expect our students to know," he said.

Committee members also approved notable changes to the following categories:

• A change in the definition of "adequacy" to further emphasize the importance of career and technical education.

• A $1 million increase in funding to the National School Lunch Funding matching grant, for a total of $5.3 million in fiscal 2020 and 2021.

• A $4 million funding increase for professional learning communities in fiscal 2020, for a total of $12.5 million for the program.

• A $2 million increase in supplemental transportation funds for districts with high transportation costs, for a total of $5 million in fiscal 2020.

The total per-student "foundation funding" rate was $6,713 in fiscal 2018 and is $6,781 this fiscal year. The committee's report will recommend increases in that rate for fiscal 2020 and 2021, but committee staff members had not calculated that number as of Tuesday afternoon.

There are 479,258 public school students in Arkansas, according to the state Department of Education.

Cozart, the House Education Committee chairman, said the committee recommendations won't satisfy everyone but that the members worked diligently to do right by students.

"We've had a lot of healthy discussions," he said. "It's as right as we can get it. Hopefully, it's good for the kids in Arkansas."

A Section on 10/10/2018

Print Headline: Legislators back teacher-pay rise

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