Teacher pay bill in state legislature gets response from both sides

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Arkansas House and Senate Democrats continue pushing for higher teacher pay, filing a bill that would significantly raise teacher salaries across the board.

Both Republicans and Democrats have publicly said they are for raising teacher pay, though the way to do it is being debated.

On Thursday, House and Senate Democrats filed a bill called the RAISE Act of 2023. It stands for Raising Arkansas’s Investment in Schools and Educators. We first saw this in the previous special session.

“We wanted to bring it back again, obviously it wasn’t successful,” said House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough (D-District 74). “The governor didn’t take it up in the special session, so we wanted to bring it back the 2023 version of it this time because it’s still our priority.”

The bill would raise starting teacher pay from $36,000 to $50,000 and provide a $10,000 bonus for every teacher in Arkansas. Democrats also filed a companion bill to raise classified school staff pay to $15 an hour.

For one school administrator, Nathalie Coulter, this raise feels much needed.

“Right now, there is a teacher shortage and also people, they come into the teacher shortage, and they leave when they realize how little their pay is,” Coulter said. “I think it’ll be an incentive for people going into the teaching field or thinking about becoming a teacher.”

“It’s a pretty ambitious bill,” McCullough said. “We know that the governor, she’s probably going to have some type of raise in her package.”

Senate Majority Leader Bart Hester (R-District 33) agreed this is an ambitious bill.

He said he completely agrees with Democrats that a raise is much deserved for teachers, though he is pointing to a larger package from Governor Sanders that includes not only teacher raises but many other reforms related to education.

“It’s going to be part of an overall education reform package that will be released in the next couple of weeks, but it will not be filed in an individual bill,” he said.

Hester said teachers should rest assured that raises are still coming their way, even if the legislature does not pass the Democrat’s bill.

“I think teachers should be encouraged even if this bill doesn’t pass – and I don’t suspect that it will – that pay raises are coming.”

Senator Hester said he is not sure the dollar amount that will be in that package for teacher raises. He said it is hard to say at this point, but we should know within a few weeks.

“We give $72,000 a year to the school district per teacher but the superintendents and the school boards just don’t spend it on teacher pay,” Hester said. “We’re doing our part it’s just getting spent differently on a local level… that’s why they’re filing a bill trying to force superintendents and school boards to actually pay teachers what we send to teachers.”

Coulter said she is hopeful to see Democrats pass this bill, though she knows it would be hard with a Republican majority. She said either way, she hopes to see legislators take action on their salaries to address the teacher shortage in Arkansas and make pay here in this state competitive with other states in the south.

“$36,000 is really not enough for someone to raise a family,” she said. “The beginning salary here in Arkansas is really below the surrounding states.”