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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Well, math is hard

by John Brummett | March 21, 2023 at 4:19 a.m.
John Brummett

Gov. Sarah Sanders' education bill now law set a minimum teacher salary of $50,000 and ordered $2,000 raises for teachers already above $50,000. It vowed to provide state money to school districts to cover that.

It also removed any state mandate for a salary schedule with pay-increase steps by which those already above $50,000, owing to experience and advanced degrees and other higher credentials, would see their pay rise more than the $2,000, thus preserving some measure of earned separation from beginning teachers.

Such pay plans also offer long-term rewards for new teachers aspiring to career service achieving personal and professional advancement.

When the bill came out, school superintendents complained to legislators about the abandonment of a state-funded salary plan. But, as Sen. Bart Hester told a national right-wing media outlet that parachuted into the state last week for near-comical Sanders promotion, Arkansas has become such a glorious place in the new regime that legislators are more afraid of Sanders than their local superintendents.

She wanted the bill passed fast with no major delay for debate and complicated amendment. The math for big raises in the broader general-revenue budget was hard, and, for her purposes, best avoided.

What she needed above all else was that $50,000 talking point. She had a standing self-extolling appointment with Fox upon its enactment.

Rep. Bruce Cozart, a Republican previously against a full-range voucher/school-choice program, told teachers at the Capitol that rich people wanted the bill--some of them are going to get thousands in taxpayer money for private school tuition--and it was going to pass despite his reservation.

Then he put his name on the bill as a co-sponsor.

Rep. DeAnn Vaught, a Republican previously against such a bill, choked herself up explaining that the bill distressed and worried her. Then she voted for it.

Now school districts are beginning to get documents from the state Education Department estimating what they can expect to receive in state funds for the $50,000 minimum and the $2,000 raises. It's far short of what they think they need to do, which is, after gladly budgeting new state money for the $50,000 floor and the $2,000 raises above that, maintain a salary schedule with pay-raise steps.

Little Rock officials estimated they'd be $8 million short in the state funds they'd need to do right--and be smart.

Little Rock School Board member Ali Noland put on Twitter that Sanders' bill hadn't delivered its promise and that the school district didn't have any spare $8 million. For that, Sanders' spokesman imported from the staffs of such right-wing luminaries as Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson, a woman named Alexa Henning, tweeted with usual grace that Noland's and Little Rock's inability to read legislation pointed to the very need for the governor's education bill.

Henning tweeted correctly that the bill and the administration's declaration had been that the state would fund a $50,000 floor and $2,000 above that, not anything beyond.

Educators are complaining that, during the rapid cram-through passage of the bill, advocates repeatedly avoided direct and clear answers to questions about a salary schedule with special consideration for teachers at the top and a narrowing of an appropriate pay gap between today's hire and a career teacher perhaps with a master's degree.

The aforementioned Vaught asked Ron DeSantis' state education secretary in Florida--well, he's ours now, named Jacob Oliva--about the pay for specially credentialed librarians and counselors. Oliva rambled around to say only that, oh, yes, we value those so much.

So, what we have is a delightful $50,000 minimum teacher salary, but no system for recognizing, encouraging or rewarding professional development for teachers. You have a morale yo-yo, up for the big raises from the bottom and down for the stagnant remuneration at the top.

Legislators are not supposed to be cowed servants of a governor. They are supposed to be an equally balancing force. They're supposed to pore over these bills, not stomp through them.

It is remotely conceivable that legislators will produce such a generous public school fund appropriation that districts would have latitude to keep and fund a salary plan giving continued reward at the top.

But it turns out the budget detail of governing is harder than self-congratulating big talk to national media.

Sanders and legislators are needing to find a way during this spring break to pay for these teacher raises while also paying for prison operations at the promised vast new facility for serious criminals without parole, all while continuing to bring down toward extinction the state income tax.

Forgive me for all these clichéd ancient memories of good ol' days such as when Mike Beebe was insisting on under-promising and over-delivering and carried all 75 counties. That was, my goodness, the eternity of a dozen years ago.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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