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Educators react to Arkansas Governor Sanders' new $50k education plan

The average pay for teachers in Arkansas is lower than in surrounding states, an issue that Gov. Sanders says she plans to solve.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark — While unveiling her LEARNS plan on Wednesday, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders included a goal of raising the minimum teacher salary to $50k.

Arkansas currently has the worst starting salary in the South with the minimum salary at $38,000. This announcement comes after a bill was filed this legislative session, called Raising Arkansas's Investment in Schools and Educators (RAISE) Act of 2023.

That bill includes a $10,000 raise for every public school teacher.

In her inaugural address, Gov. Sanders said that if the legislature sent her a bill that raised teacher pay, "I will sign it.” 

“Arkansas teachers are paid worse than their peers in every other southern state. With the RAISE Act, we can right this wrong and deliver a huge win for our children in Arkansas’s public schools,” said Senate Minority Leader Greg Leading (D-Fayetteville). 

Other goals relating to teachers in the LEARNS plan also include 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, expanding school safety initiatives and mental health training.

Quick Facts on the RAISE Act:

  • The RAISE Act will cost $350 million for the $10,000 raise and a one-time cost of $30 million to help districts meet the new minimum salary of $50,000.

  • The classified raise comes from a House recommendation out of the educational adequacy study to raise the per-pupil foundation amount for non-teacher employees. Our classified staff pay bill doubles the initial recommendation of a $2/hr raise to $4/hr. We achieve this raise with an $89 increase per pupil, which is around $42 million total. 

  • When compared to surrounding states and the south, Arkansas has the lowest average starting salaries for teachers:  (Texas - $44,527, Louisiana - $42,185, Alabama - $41,163, Tennessee - $39,024, Mississippi - $36,653 – Source: National Education Association)

Quick Facts on the LEARNS plan:

  • Stands for Literacy Empowerment Accountability Readiness Networking Safety
  • K-3 students struggling to read will be eligible for funding supplemental education services ($500 per student)
  • No Critical Race Theory 
  • Arkansas students must "be able to read" at a 3rd-grade level before 4th grade
  • Students must complete 75 hours of community service before graduating high school
  • School choice for all families by the 2025-2026 school year

"I believe every child growing up in Arkansas should have access to a quality education, a good-paying job, and a better life right here in our state, and I believe Arkansas LEARNS is how together we will achieve it, " Governor Sanders said.

Arkansas educators are reacting to the two plans meant to ease the teacher shortage.

"There is a teacher shortage and just going to get worse if we can't recruit more kids to go into teaching," said Director of Arkansas Strong Gwen Faulkenberry.

She's pushed for teacher pay raises since August. "It's the lowest in the region and it's 48th in the entire nation."

Faulkenberry has also been a teacher for more than 15 years and when she started out teaching 24 years ago, the starting salary was $30,000. Six-thousand dollars less than the current base salary. "It's insulting," Faulkenberry said.

With inflation and the growing list of tasks for teachers, educators say the starting salary needs to be increased as well.

"Teaching is a hard job, it's always been a hard job, and also, you know, a passion, a mission, and a profession," Director of Teacher Education at the University of Arkansas, Jennifer Beasley.

In order to recruit and retain new teachers Governor Sanders announced the learning plan. In addition to the new base salary, it would forgive the student loans of new teachers who begin teaching in "high-need" areas of the state.

"It's a great start, I'll say that," said Ryan Gray, Fort Smith Teachers Association president. Gray says more work needs to be done to support veteran teachers. "If you want to retain those people, you have to reward them as well."

"There are some things in this bill [the 'LEARNS Plan'] that are damaging to public education," said Faulkenberry.

Gray says he disagrees with the governor's plans for school vouchers. "$50,000 is not worth privatizing education."

The plan also includes tutoring grants, reading coaches in some elementary schools, and a ban on critical race theory.

"They [educators] feel insulted by that," Gray said. "Because we are not out there indoctrinating students. We're teaching them how to read."

The other option for an increase to the teacher base pay is the RAISE Act. It would also make the base pay $50K and provide $10K for all teachers.

"A plan that gives every teacher in Arkansas a $10,000 raise is better than a plan that doesn't," said Gray. However, even with a base pay increase, Gray believes raising pay won't end the teacher shortage.

"The teacher shortage goes way far beyond the teacher base rate of pay," Gray. "I don't even think that will scratch the surface of fixing the teacher shortage issue."

The RAISE Act is currently in a house committee. While the LEARNS Plan has not been filed.

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