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Ever since the Central High School integration crisis in 1957, the image of public education in Arkansas in the national consciousness has ... not been one associated with progressive best-practices, but Arkansas public schools did turn out a president and a number of world class artists and scientists. Today, though, the state ranks near the bottom of most indexes of student achievement.

State Lawmakers Push For Teacher Raises, Local School Officials Push Back

Sarah Whites-Koditschek
Arkansas Public Media

Teachers in Arkansas’s lowest paying districts could see a small pay bump in their salaries soon.

A billto increase minimum teacher salary in Arkansas is headed to the Senate Education Committee. It would bring the lowest paid Arkansas teachers up $400 dollars from the current $31,000 minimum.

Richard Abernathy, who represents superintendents at the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, says there isn’t money allotted for raises.

“The bottom line, there’s a big disconnect between policy makers and actually how you run a school district,” he said.

Credit Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Richard Abernathy (center) leaving the House Education Committee room.

According to Abernathy, the state, which provides most of schools' funding, is planning to give a one percent cost-of-living increase this year, and it is asking poor districts, who spend most of their budgets on staffing, to come up with money they don’t have, which could eventually mean teacher layoffs.

House Education Committee Chair Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) sponsored the pay increase bill. He says the goal is to raise salaries a little each year.

“I think that’s going to be our priority, is bringing our teachers up and schools funded. It’s just hard to do that. When you start figuring out adequacy, it’s just hard to get everything perfect.”

Adequacy is a constitutional requirement that Arkansas schools be funded equitably and meet a set of quality standards. Adequacy must, by law, be met before any other money is allotted in the state budget.

Each biennium the Bureau of Legislative Research does a report on how school districts are meeting these standards, and this year the report suggested a 2.5 percent cost of living increase, about twice the amount lawmakers have actually put forward. Abernathy says that’s not adequate.

“If you’re making a commitment to come down and cut taxes, then you’ve got to hold revenue down. You’ve got to hold expenditures, and K-12 would be a part of that."

Recently Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law a $50 million low-income tax cut.

State Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle), also on the education committee, says he thinks school districts do have the money they need. And more responsibility should be shifted to local leaders.

“The state’s burden also is to make sure the money is spent adequately. And I think a lot of times legislators are hesitant to drive into that, because so many of us believe in local control."

He says some districts are holding too much extra money in the bank.

“When they’ve got students that are upside-down in terms of every educational metric and they’ve got enough money they could hire one-on-one tutors. They could address many of the educational inadequacies that are out there, and they have the money to do it.”

Lowery plans to put forward a bill that would cap district fund balances at 20 percent of their overall budget. Abernathy supports such a cap and says it’s a rare instance that districts hold an excessive amount of funding in the bank.

Taking a step back to look at the big picture of education funding, state Sen. Joyce Elliot (D-Little Rock) says lawmakers need a better method to figure out how much funding, constitutionally speaking,  is enough.

“I’m not sure at all that doing a review is adequate for us to know whether or not we are meeting all the requirements we should to know that every student in the state has an equitable, adequate education.”

Credit Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media
Arkansas Public Media
Senate Ed. Committee poses for a photo.

Meanwhile, the legislature is considering two constitutional amendments that would change or end the judiciary’s oversight of public schools. Adequacy standards were set by a 1992 State Supreme Court case, commonly called Lake View for the district that launched it.

When asked whether the lawsuit could be revisited, Abernathy said he hopes not, because it’s easier for everyone to work out problems together before a court gets involved.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State News with Context.

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