Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders promised to raise starting teacher salaries in her state “from one of the lowest to one of the highest in the nation” in her Feb. 7 Republican rebuttal speech to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.
The next day, she unveiled Arkansas LEARNS, a major education initiative that includes teacher pay raises alongside a major expansion of school choice; a policy to keep 3rd graders who haven’t met reading standards from advancing to 4th grade; and the repeal of the state’s mandatory, graduated pay scale for teachers as well as a state law that requires that teachers receive written notice of a suspension or termination and allows them to request a school board hearing to try to get their job back.
That Huckabee Sanders’ marquee education initiative couples teacher pay raises with other, more traditional conservative education policies is one example of the growing bipartisan support for boosting teachers’ pay, a cause traditionally championed by Democrats.
While a proposal from Democrats in Congress to raise teachers’ base pay to $60,000 has gained some high-profile support, governors from both parties this winter have proposed teacher pay increases as schools struggle to fill key positions and fewer young people show interest in the profession.
In Arkansas, Huckabee Sanders’ LEARNS—short for Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking, and School Safety—proposal has since passed the state’s Senate and House in the form of a 145-page bill. It will go back to the Senate for a concurring vote before heading to Huckabee Sanders’ desk.
It would raise Arkansas’s starting teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000, bumping the state’s starting salary ranking from 48th in the nation to sixth, according to a National Education Association report on teacher salary benchmarks in the 2020-21 school year.
Huckabee Sanders labeled the initiative “an education package that will be the most far-reaching, bold conservative education reform in the country.”
Biden also called for teacher salary increases in his State of the Union speech, proclaiming, “Let’s give public school teachers a raise” to cheers from the congressional audience.
In Congress, Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y,introduced a bill to give incentives to states to raise teacher salaries to $60,000, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., plans to introduce a complementary bill that would triple Title I funding for low-income schools and increase wages for veteran teachers in addition to instituting the $60,000 salary floor.
No Republicans in Congress have signed on to support the federal measures. But an increasing number of conservative state governors, such as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Idaho Gov. Brad Little, and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, have joined Huckabee Sanders in proposing a teacher pay increase.
But those policies aren’t always as simple as they may seem, and some teachers and education policy experts worry about whether pay increases will be sustainable long term.
The average public school teacher salary in the 2020-21 school year was $65,090, which is only $83 above the average pay in 1989-90 when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. It’s also more than $1,200 less than what teachers made in 2009-10, and teachers are underpaid compared with workers in other professions with similar experience and education backgrounds.
Low teacher pay has sparked protests and walkouts over the past decade, including the coordinated national #RedforED movement to improve working conditions for teachers. But states are now facing pressing regional teacher shortages and dramatic drops in reading and math scores among students.
Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, found in a recent study that teacher attrition and turnover are at historic highs in Washington state. The state’s attrition rate in 2022 was 8.9 percent, higher than the rate of any of the past 37 school years, according to the study.
“It makes sense that if it’s hard to hire teachers, one policy lever that you might pull is teacher pay,” Goldhaber said.
Many schools are feeling the pressure of turnover and shortages as they try to compete for teaching candidates who can earn higher salaries in other states.
“Right now the competition for the best teachers in the region is more intense than ever,” Delaware Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, said in his State of the State speech on Jan. 19. “So, we need to pay our teachers more to win the competition with surrounding states.”
Delaware’s neighboring states had some of the highest average teacher salaries in the nation in 2020-21, with an $80,659 average salary in the District of Columbia, $74,006 in Maryland, and $71,479 in Pennsylvania, according to the NEA. Delaware’s average, meanwhile, was $65,141. Carney plans to include a 9 percent raise for teachers in his fiscal year 2024 budget.
Some proposals are more than simple raises
Teacher pay is just one part of the Arkansas LEARNS bill. The bill would also expand school choice through “educational freedom accounts” that would provide public funds to help students pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses. The bill would eventually make school choice universally available in the state.
It would prohibit “indoctrination” and critical race theory in the classroom and require that schools allow parents to preview curriculum materials before classroom instruction, which is already allowed in many districts for parents who ask. The bill would also place literacy coaches in low-performing classrooms and—emulating a policy that has been in place for years in neighboring Mississippi—require 3rd graders to meet reading standards before advancing to 4th grade.
The comprehensive nature of the bill worries Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, which has come out in opposition to Arkansas LEARNS. While the association is in support of efforts to improve literacy and raise teacher pay, it’s against education savings accounts because, it says, they direct funds away from public schools.
That puts the chief union representing Arkansas teachers in an awkward situation in which it has to campaign against pay increases for its own members.
“Since it’s all or none, it puts you in a position where you do have to advocate against it,” Fleming said. “However, if they were to separate sections out of that bill and make appropriate amendments, it would be much more palatable.”
Other teacher salary proposals are similarly complicated. In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent Ryan Walters have proposed merit-based pay raises while the state legislature has advanced a bill that would raise starting teacher salaries from $36,602 to $39,601, according to The Oklahoman. School districts would be tasked with determining who receives raises based on factors such as student performance, classroom practices, and time spent in professional development, according to the Oklahoman.
Merit-based pay increases have long been a point of concern for teachers, who say they don’t fairly judge their work or account for students’ different circumstances.
Huckabee Sanders’ plan also has a merit-based pay component, making bonuses of up to $10,000 available to teachers through a newly created Merit Teacher Incentive Fund Program.
“Ultimately, anything that would tie a teacher’s well-being and ability to pay their bills to students’ test scores is never going to work out well,” said Nínive Calegari, co-founder of The Teacher Salary Project, a campaign to raise teacher pay across the country.
Where teacher pay policies are sustainable
Districts need to be strategic in how they allocate pay increases, Goldhaber said.
He favors policies that raise starting teacher salaries rather than salary increases across the board. That’s because that kind of policy is more likely to prevent young teachers from leaving in their first three to five years and motivate more college students to enter teaching.
“If you’re thinking about trying to reduce teacher attrition, then I think money allocated early in a teacher’s career is likely to do more good across the board,” Goldhaber said. “You can’t lower attrition very much for mid-career teachers because it’s not that high.”
Calegari agreed, noting it has become more difficult to get college students interested in choosing teaching as a career.
But that kind of policy doesn’t always sit well with teachers’ unions that argue that increases should reward expertise and experience. Fleming is particularly worried that the Arkansas LEARNS plan will make it difficult for mid- to late-career teachers to get appropriate pay increases.
As it’s currently written, the plan would eliminate state-mandated teacher salary schedules and instead give school districts the responsibility of adopting an employee salary schedule. It would also provide a $2,000 pay raise for current teachers across the board.
“Let’s say you have a teacher who has 15 years experience and in 2022-23 was making $52,000 a year. Moving forward, they will get $54,000,” Fleming said. “But a brand new teacher with zero experience is going to come in making $50,000. That 15-year gap is a difference of only $4,000. Where’s the equity in that?”
Teacher salary policies can also go a long way toward addressing shortages by giving pay increases for hard-to-staff subjects and schools that predominantly serve students of color or high-poverty students, Goldhaber said.
Ultimately, however, boosting teacher pay is just one part of the staffing challenge. Shortages won’t be solved unless there’s better respect for teachers, Calegari said.
“We’ve got to do something really dramatic to change the perception of what this job can mean because there’s a lot working against it right now,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as Teacher Pay Raise Proposals Are Gaining Bipartisan Support. What’s in Them?