By Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate
An Arkansas Legislative Council subcommittee approved the disbursal of $188 million in federal relief funds to 44 school districts Thursday. This was the third round of plans reviewed by lawmakers.
Today’s authorization by the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review panel is part of the council’s continued efforts to review districts’ use of American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money to make sure districts provide bonuses to teachers.
The PEER approval now goes to the legislative council for final authorization.
The council adopted recommendations in July that schools use ESSER funds to provide retention and recruitment bonuses ranging from $2,500 for full-time classified staff to $5,000 for teachers. Lawmakers recommended part-time classified staff receive amounts that are half those awarded to their full-time counterparts.
The council made the recommendations during its July 21 meeting after rescinding $500 million in spending authority it gave the Arkansas Department of Education in June. Approximately $42.5 million of that amount had already been spent, so the council appropriated that funding back to the Arkansas Department of Education.
The focus of the ESSER funds is to help schools safely provide in-person instruction, operate safely and address the academic, social, emotional and mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students, according to the education department.
The legislative council authorized the education department to disburse $269.5 million to school districts in August. Department officials said 118 schools have submitted plans to lawmakers, 45% of all the state’s school districts.
The council’s recommendation to provide bonuses to teachers and staff came after a record state surplus prompted calls to use the funds to increase educators’ salaries. June revenue was more than $150 million above forecast, leaving a net surplus of more than $1.6 billion for the fiscal year.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson attributed the surplus to “the state’s dynamic job creation coming out of the pandemic and increased consumer buying power.” As a result, he called a special session of the General Assembly in August to reduce the state income tax rate and set aside $50 million for a school safety grant program.
Hutchinson voiced his disapproval of the council’s decision to rescind $500 million from the Arkansas Department of Education, citing concerns that teachers in some districts would receive a bonus, while others would not.
A week after the Arkansas Legislative Council made its recommendation to use ESSER funds for teacher bonuses, Arkansas House and Senate Democrats released a plan to raise teacher salaries by $4,000 and increase the minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $42,000.
The Raising Arkansas’ Investment in Schools and Educators (RAISE) Act proposed using $600 million from the $1.6 billion surplus to create a fund that would allow the raises to be sustainable based on current budget projections, according to Democratic Party of Arkansas officials. House Minority Leader Rep. Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock), a former public school teacher, said a lot is asked of educators and it’s important to support them.
“As much as they love what they do, many are leaving the profession or moving to states that pay their teachers adequately,” McCullough said in a statement at the time. “We have to do much more to ensure that we are recruiting and retaining great teachers. That starts with a fair salary.”
The minimum teacher salary in Arkansas is less than in neighboring states Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and Tennessee where starting salaries range from $38,000 to $44,500, according to the National Education Association.
Hutchinson ultimately declined to include teacher raises in the special session’s agenda because it did not have enough support among Republican legislators, who said they’d rather address the issue during the regular session that begins in January.
In 2021, Arkansas lawmakers approved Act 679, which increased the average salary for teachers in the state. Lead sponsor Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said during the ALC’s July 21 meeting that she was committed to increasing teachers’ pay.
“We’ve always been committed to that, we have a history of showing that we’re committed to that and we’re going to continue down that process with recommendations in November, to conclude in November for recommendations in the 2023 general session,” Irvin said.
The General Assembly’s Education Committee is working on its 2022 Adequacy Study report, a requirement of state law for determining funding for schools. A preliminary draft will be presented at the committee’s Sept. 6 meeting.