Expect a serious attempt in the legislative session that started Monday to redirect state education spending for teacher salaries to smaller, rural school districts and away from Northwest Arkansas, warned Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville.
The state sets a minimum for teacher salaries, but school districts are allowed to exceed it. The Northwest region's success in paying teachers more than most districts in the state remains a bone of contention among lawmakers, Dotson said.
The Speaker of the House, Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, has not heard any specific proposals to shift pay to rural areas, he said in a news briefing Friday. He did agree disparities in salaries is a long-standing issue. He also expects it to resurface, he said.
"I wouldn't say that as we sit here today I'm aware of any specific proposal that's likely to come forward," Shepherd said. "I would say that it is a challenge that is, as you've alluded to, something that is brought up very regularly. We're aware of it.
"Particularly, as somebody who is from south Arkansas, we have a particular challenge to retain our teachers because so many can make more money in other parts of the state and other states. I think that's part of a larger discussion."
Senate President Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson said at the same briefing that raising teacher pay overall is a priority this session.
The minimum teacher salary is set by the state at $33,800. The Legislature enacted Act 170 in 2019 to raise minimum teacher pay from $31,800 at that time to $36,000 a year by 2023. Springdale School District's minimum salary is $48,282.
Economy of scale explains part of the reason for the Northwest area's higher pay compared to south Arkansas and other regions, Dotson said in a recent interview. Northwest Arkansas' school districts tend to be large and growing. Four of the state's 10 largest districts are in Benton or Washington counties, state Department of Education figures show.
The average school district in Arkansas has fewer than 500 students, Education Department figures show. Bentonville School District, for instance, has an enrollment of almost 18,000.
Public school districts in the region also have a deserved history of being well run, Dotson said. That is largely because the same economies of scale benefiting teacher salaries are also an advantage in administrator pay, he said.
"There's an argument to make that an administrator in a district educating thousands of students should be better paid than an administrator in a smaller district," he said. "Even a small mistake is a big deal in a district that has thousands of students instead of hundreds," Dotson said. Therefore, districts hire the best administrators they can afford.
Dotson has heard fellow lawmakers discussing a "wealth index" plan for assistance to schools, in which districts with lower property tax values in their tax base would get more state support for salaries. This would be similar to existing state assistance for school facilities.
Who, if anyone, will bring a plan forward and what form it will take remains unknown, Dotson said.
The governor's proposed budget includes $2.25 billion for the state's Public School Fund, about one-third of the budget for revenue raised in the state, excluding federal assistance.
The state constitution dictates the state maintain an "adequate and equitable" system of public education.
Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug.