Inequitable Teacher Salaries Studied by Arkansas Legislature

On September 9th I picked up a copy of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and read a story about teacher salaries titled “Lawmakers Study Salaries for Educators.” Of course this is something that I care about not only because I used to be a teacher and earned one of those for five years but also because I help prepare teachers at the University of Arkansas for careers in education, careers in which they’ll be compensated for the good work they do.

Let’s start by dispelling any myths: secondary English teachers work harder than any other teachers and they have more planning, reading, and responding (not grading) to do—by far—than any other discipline. Since I used to be an English teacher I’m probably biased, but I stayed up all night responding to papers with some frequency, averaging about four hours of sleep per night during the school week. After each paper I symbolically ran my fingers over the top of my head in a downward motion, my thinning hair thinning right in front of my eyes onto the students’ papers. I’d then tally in the upper corner of the paper how many individual hairs each took—the all time record was a six-page single spaced mess that cost me 22 hairs.

jason-alexander-george-costanza-baldI’ll blame my baldness on those papers, but what really made me lose hair was when I paid bills at the end of each month. Maybe I should say that instead of pay bills, I figured out which bills I could pay and which bills could be put off. I worked second and third jobs, taught summer school, coached football, debate, forensics, and even sponsored the class of 2004 for four years. Supplementing my all-consuming teaching job with other ways of making a meager 300/year stipend is, to date, some of the hardest money I’ve ever earned; my work history includes building fences, machining metal in a machine shop, hauling and stacking alfalfa hay, and mixing for a muffin company, a job which involved an 800 pound mixer and countless pallets of 50lb bags of flour and sugar.

Teaching is a wonderful career, and I’m honored to still be involved with education. The tenor of the policy conversations—especially any of them involving money—make lifting 50lb bags of flour and sugar or hauling 90lb alfalfa bails seem like light work. That aside, I’ve been consistently bothered by the teacher salaries in the state of Arkansas, not to say that our state is any different than others, just to say that I sense a great inequity in the funding system that currently exists. Little Rock Senator Joyce Elliot relates similar feelings in the ADG piece, “We really must spend more time thinking about this because the issue of disparity and maintaining teachers, all of these things are hugely, hugely important all around this state.”

Let’s say that one of my teachers graduated with a Master of Arts in Teaching and took a job at Springdale High School. This first year teacher made $49,029 for the 2013-2014 school year. Another pretend graduate opted to move to across the state to Brinkley, Arkansas. She made $35,950 starting out with a Master’s degree at Brinkley High last year.

Does anyone else sense that there is something wrong with that picture? Maybe it’s just me.

What I see are two jobs teaching, let’s say, ninth grade English that are likely pretty different. I’ve worked some with students and teachers at both schools and while I taught at a school that more closely resembles Springdale in terms of size and mission, I attended a small rural high school in the flatlands of Kansas, a 220px-Brinkley,_AR_009school and community not all that dissimilar to BHS. Is one job more important than the other? Is one job more difficult and if so, which one? Why is there such a gap—nearly $15,000—between pay in these two districts for equally qualified and experienced teachers? If one adds up $15,000 over a thirty year teaching career, there’s a $450,000 difference between teaching at SHS versus BHS.

Why the difference you ask? Property taxes are used to supplement the state provided minimum salary in districts that collect enough of it.

So let me get this straight, the districts that already have more money—people paying higher amounts of property taxes—hire teachers at nearly $15,000/year more than districts that don’t have as much. This sounds to me like a classic case of the rich get richer and poor stay poorer. Since we can likely count the number of garage doors per house in any given district and reasonably predict the school’s achievement numbers, it stands to reason that the districts where wealthier people live are able to hire teachers at a higher salary and they’ll also receive better marks from the state.

These same inequities are true in the northwest Arkansas corner as well and the scenario of two first year teachers from the same class of our professional teacher preparation program here leaving to make vastly different salaries is not imagined or the act of a mistreatment of schools in the Arkansas Delta. In this little corner of the state, one can find the same disparity in salaries by driving nine miles between high schools. This is pure, unadulterated class warfare and Arkansans should expect better.

So, if you, dear honorable members of the 2014-2015 Arkansas Legislature are serious about studying teaching salaries, I’d urge to first look very critically at the formula in place being used to pay teachers. In my way of thinking, the teachers in Brinkley (and all of the other small and/or rural schools) deserve to be paid every bit as much as the teachers in the population centers of our state, if not more. Let’s raise the minimum starting teaching salary to $45,000 and then initiate a plan to create equity—however a bipartisan group defines it—amongst the salary funding formula. We’ll have an easier time attracting and keeping great teachers in the profession, if, in fact, that’s what we want for all children.