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Arkansas Raises Pay for New Teachers, Angering Veterans

Arkansas gave a significant pay boost to new hires, making it easier for rural districts to attract talent. This has caused resentment among experienced teachers who now feel unrewarded for their long service.

Kristin Allbritton, an elementary school teacher in Mayflower, Ark
Kristin Allbritton, an elementary school teacher in Mayflower, Ark., watches her class on the playground a few days before the end of the school year. (Photos: Ariel Gilreath/The Hechinger Report)
When Ashlyn Siebert started looking last year for teaching jobs near Decatur — her rural hometown — she knew she wouldn’t make as much as a first-year teacher 16 miles away in Bentonville, home to Walmart’s headquarters.

The story was the same in dozens of other small towns across Arkansas. If teachers wanted to earn more, they had to move to a bigger school district. In Decatur, teachers with a bachelor’s degree made a starting salary of $36,000. Even if they taught in schools for 25 years, they would still earn less than teachers right out of college in Bentonville, who were making $48,755 a year.

But Siebert’s timing was good. In the span of 15 days in early 2023, the state legislature passed a massive education bill, which went into effect that fall. When Siebert ultimately signed a contract to teach in Decatur for the 2023-24 school year, the starting salary had jumped to $50,000. It’s been a huge help at a time when the cost of living has swelled, Siebert said.

“I think it’s a good way to draw people into the profession, especially if it’s something they already knew they wanted to do but were held back by the salary,” she said.

But the new law has had a mixed reception.

School leaders said the pay jump has made it much easier to attract teachers to small rural school districts like Decatur, where salaries had not kept up with inflation. However, the law — called the LEARNS Act — also got rid of mandated annual raises. And it’s caused tension among veteran teachers, many of whom had to work for two decades to come close to making $50,000 annually. Because of the new law, in more than half of the state’s school districts, every teacher made the same salary this year, regardless of years of experience.

It is the largest state investment in teacher salaries in Arkansas history, a big deal in a state that ranked 48th in the country for starting pay up until this year. The law in Arkansas is one of nearly two dozen similar measures in states around the country that have been proposed or passed in the last few years. Most, like the Arkansas law, aim to address staffing shortages. Just north of Arkansas, Missouri passed its own version of the LEARNS Act this year. The state boosted teacher pay to $40,000 among other, more controversial provisions, including an expansion of its voucher program.

Decatur sits in the northwest corner of Arkansas, surrounded by farmland and in the heart of poultry country. Outside of the school system, most people in Decatur work either in the chicken processing plant a few minutes out of town or they raise chickens to sell to the plant, Siebert said. About 80 percent of the nearly 600 students in the school district qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty.
hechinger-wilson.jpgKaren Wilson, a third-grade teacher at Mayflower Elementary School
Karen Wilson, a third-grade teacher at Mayflower Elementary School, looks over a student’s shoulder as he completes a worksheet.
Decatur is near some of the state’s biggest school districts: Springdale, Fayetteville and Bentonville. A year ago, schools in those cities could afford to pay a first-year teacher between $48,000 and $50,282, depending on the district.

Because of that pay gap, between 30 and 40 percent of teachers in Decatur were leaving each year, Decatur School District Superintendent Steven Watkins said.

“We would hire new teachers out of college and keep them three years, until they weren’t novice anymore, and then the bigger schools would hire them,” Watkins said. “There was a huge discrepancy in the money.”

This year, teacher turnover in the district dropped to about 10 percent. Watkins credits the salary increase and the district’s decision to move to a four-day school week next year. “I can say out of the ones we’ve lost this year, none of them have been because of the money,” Watkins said.

Since the passage of the LEARNS Act, the district’s applicant pool has been larger and of higher quality, Watkins said. A high school teaching position in Decatur that would have received one or two applicants in the past had more than a dozen this year. The same was true in similar districts. Guy-Perkins, a small school district in central Arkansas with just over 300 students, typically saw three to four applicants depending on the position. This year, the district received 15 applications for a single teaching position at the elementary school.

It’s still too soon to say how much the law will impact future teacher recruitment and retention, according to researchers at the University of Arkansas. A study of teachers entering and exiting schools just before the 2023-24 school year showed modest improvements, at best, but that could be because the law passed in March, when many teachers had likely already made up their mind about the next school year. Because of legal challenges to the LEARNS Act that have since been dismissed, there was also a degree of uncertainty about whether it would actually be implemented, the researchers said. An important litmus test will be the law’s impact on teachers with several years of experience, which research has shown is correlated with classroom effectiveness.

“We cannot say conclusively,” said Gema Zamarro, a professor at the university who co-authored the study. “We have to wait and see.”

But there have already been some unexpected consequences to the new law. While the pay boost may have helped the front-end of the teacher pipeline in small rural schools, the effect on veteran teachers at the top end of salary schedules was less pronounced. The law guaranteed that educators who made close to or more than $50,000 could receive a $2,000 one-time salary increase. That meant in 55 percent of the state’s school districts this year, there was no reward for years of experience or, in many of those districts, advanced degrees. Educators with two decades in the classroom are earning the same salary as their peers who just graduated college. Before the law, teachers made less money but were guaranteed a raise of a few hundred dollars a year for at least 15 years, and teachers with advanced degrees had a higher pay scale.

“It’s a little frustrating when the guy next door to you has a year and he’s making the same amount as you are,” said Decatur teacher Rebecca McElhannon, who has a master’s degree and 17 years of experience. “Any recognition that we need more pay is amazing, but it could have been more fair.”
Rebecca McElhannon, a high school English teacher in Decatur, Ark., works with a ninth-grade student.
Rebecca McElhannon, a high school English teacher in Decatur, Ark., works with a ninth-grade student.
A single mother with a teenager, McElhannon occasionally drives for DoorDash and picks up shifts doing concessions at the Fayetteville ballparks to make a little extra money. But she did see some benefits from the law. After the raise, her salary went from a little more than $48,000 to just over $50,000 this year — a pay boost that would have taken her four years to get on the previous salary model.

In Mayflower, a small school district of just under 1,000 students between Little Rock and Conway, kindergarten teacher Kristin Allbritton and third grade teacher Karen Wilson know their years of experience have made them better teachers. The legislation sent them a different message.

“I know I’m valued here,” said Allbritton, who has taught in Mayflower for 15 years. “But feeling, as a professional, valued from this legislation? Yeah, no.”

According to the district’s current salary schedule, both Allbritton and Wilson will continue to make $50,000 until they retire.

“No one has ever become a teacher to gain financially,” said Wilson, who has taught in Mayflower for 19 years, “but at the same time, financial gain is why you work, period. Right? It’s why you work. We can’t put teachers in a box and say, ‘Well, you don’t do it for the money.’ You still have to earn money; you still have to live. It’s hard to watch when teachers are trying to balance all of those feelings and make decisions for what’s best for them.”

From a strategy perspective, it makes sense for a state to focus on improving pay for early career teachers, said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.

“The attrition rate for first-year teachers in some districts can be 20 or 30 percent, and the attrition rate for somebody who has been teaching for 10 or 15 years is going to be very low — more like 3 or 4 percent,” Goldhaber said. “So, if you’re trying to change salaries to affect teacher attrition, you’re working off a much larger number at the beginning of a career.”

To try and offer some level of raises above $50,000, some small schools have added tiny increases to their budgets. Guy-Perkins approved a $150 annual raise for its teachers every year for up to 16 years. In Mayflower, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 15 graduate credit hours could increase their salary by $500 in their 22nd year of teaching.

Because the LEARNS Act funding is only guaranteed for the next two years and only pays for the current teacher workforce, leaders in smaller school districts are cautious about adding annual raises to their own budgets. According to a University of Arkansas survey, most school leaders said they were somewhat or very likely to increase pay by a flat percent in the next few years. But uncertainty over state funding was the top reason superintendents gave for why their district might not change salaries.

The LEARNS Act does include a merit-based bonus for “effective” teachers at the end of the school year, but the rules have yet to be finalized on what “effective” looks like or exactly how much teachers will get. And district leaders have concerns about that, too, fearing that providing meaningful evaluations for every teacher each year will be too time-consuming, according to the Arkansas Times.

Some districts, like Mayflower, include small steps after several years for teachers with advanced degrees, but others don’t. The law is likely to impact graduate teaching programs throughout the state, said April Reisma, president of the Arkansas Education Association. “If you’re not going to get rewarded for going to get advanced degrees, why would you bother?” Reisma said.

Will Benight, a special education teacher in Guy-Perkins, put it this way in emails he sent to legislators: When is the state going to refund him for his master’s degree?

“I mean, seeing as how it’s pointless now, I think it would be fair to know,” said Benight, who said he would return the $6,000 raise he got this year if it meant getting rid of the LEARNS Act.

Along with de-incentivizing advanced degrees, teachers and administrators have raised concerns about other provisions in the wide-ranging law, which spans 144 pages and touches on almost every corner of education policy, including a private school voucher program, a third grade reading retention requirement and a ban on critical race theory and “indoctrination.” The legislation also made it easier for districts to fire teachers, among other changes.

The costs of some of the new policies are not covered by the state, heightening school leaders’ concerns about the long-term sustainability of funding these changes. Teachers whose salaries are paid with federal money didn’t factor into the state’s calculations. Schools with higher levels of students in poverty typically have more federally funded positions such as school social workers and early intervention specialists. Guy-Perkins had to cover the cost of the pay bump to $50,000 for positions such as dyslexia specialist and school counselor.

“I’m just trying to get my bearings straight. There is so much change all at once,” said Joe Fisher, superintendent of Guy-Perkins.

And while the salary raises gave rural schools an edge that has enabled them to better compete for teachers, larger districts have already responded with their own updated salaries. In Springdale next year, a first-year teacher will make $53,600. In Bentonville, the starting salary is $54,424. The pay gap between districts will likely grow wider over time.

Andy Chisum, the Mayflower superintendent, isn’t optimistic. “In 10 years,” he said, “you’re probably going to have that $10,000 gap again.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report. Read the original here.
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