From the historic hallways of the most beautiful state Capitol in our great nation, this is Senator Keith Ingram.
Recruiting good teachers to rural areas and small towns has always been difficult because larger cities have the revenue to pay higher salaries.
That’s mainly because they have businesses and manufacturing plants that pay real estate taxes, which are an important source of revenue for the local school district.
According to state education officials, the gap in salaries between the richest and the poorest school districts is more than $21,000 a year.
With that in mind, the legislature passed a bill that will narrow the salary gap over the next two years.
It creates a special fund for equalization of teacher salaries. That fund will start with about $25 million, which will be distributed to schools that now pay less than the state average teacher salary.
It’s estimated that the money will increase average teacher salaries in those districts by about $2,000 over the next two years, from about $49,000 to about $51,000.
The bill is part of an ongoing effort to make Arkansas teacher salaries competitive with neighboring states, and to upgrade schools in isolated, rural areas.
For example, in the 2019 session we raised minimum salaries for teachers by about $1,000 a year over a four year period. The minimum salary will be $36,000 in school year 2022-2023, compared to $31,400 last year.
Another method of creating prosperity in rural areas is by making high speed broadband more affordable and accessible.
To that end the legislature has advanced two measures this year. One empowers cities and counties to partner with local Internet providers and issue bonds for infrastructure.
Another bill allows for the creation of broadband improvement districts. This will allow communities to raise capital for financing Internet services, and to partner with private companies that provide broadband.
Education and broadband go hand in hand, when it comes to economic development. Corporate executives are looking for a workforce with the skills to operate sophisticated technology.
That’s a major reason behind legislation we’ve already passed this year to require students to pass a computer science course in order to graduate. The bill also requires all high schools to hire a certified computer science teacher.
In related news, the Senate has approved the school funding formula. It is one of the single largest and most important spending categories in state government, along with Medicaid.
Education funding is based on enrollment, in other words, schools receive state foundation aid on a per pupil basis.
The Senate passed legislation to increase the per student amount from $6,899 for the current school year to $7,018 per student, beginning in the fall.
Schools receive additional funding if they have high percentages of students from low-income families, students with special needs and students who don’t speak English as their first language.
School funding and teacher pay have not been getting much publicity, but there is no doubt they’re among the most important issues the legislature will address this year.
Arkansas will reap the benefits for many years to come.
From the Capitol, it is always my greatest honor and most sincere privilege to serve you as your state Senator. This is Keith Ingram.