University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Local Control and Teacher Salaries

In The View from the OEP on February 15, 2017 at 1:24 pm

appleThis week, we consider actions school districts can take to attract and retain teachers.  Last week we addressed how education is a local issue, and we know that many of the most important decisions impacting student education take place locally.  One of those local decisions is teacher compensation.

In response to our recent blog post about several bills in the legislature to incentivize teachers, and we received feedback from teachers who were frustrated that these incentives are not helpful to them. These veteran teachers are at the top of the salary scale, and given rising healthcare contributions, feel they are earning less each year. Arkansas is developing incentives to bring folks into the profession, but how can we keep them from leaving?

Although Arkansas has a lower percentage of teachers leaving the profession than most other states, many teachers exit each year. In a recent Bureau of Legislative Research survey,  26% of Arkansas teachers who responded indicated they are currently considering leaving the teaching profession.  New teachers leave at a high rate,  36% of new Arkansas teachers left the profession within five years.  Older teachers leave at high rates as well, with about 10% of teachers between 40 and 60 leaving the profession, and exit rates sharply increasing for teachers over 60.

Although teachers leave for a variety of reasons, it is often about the money.  District leaders who responded to the survey identified difficultly in offering competitive salaries was the greatest challenge when it comes to retaining teachers, and 54% of teachers indicated that higher salaries/better benefits would keep them in the profession.

Arkansas teachers are not underpaid compared to the national average and regional states. Arkansas teacher salaries are increasing and about average nationally and regionally when cost of living is figured in. Arkansas’ average classroom teacher salary for 2015-16 was $48,976 but there is variation between districts throughout the state.

Who decides how much to pay teachers?

Your local school boards.

So, why can’t districts offer competitive salaries? They can.

Districts in Arkansas receive the guaranteed funding at the same per-student amount  according to the state funding matrix. In 2015-16 allocated $4,290 per student in teacher salary and benefits. Since the average teacher salary is 2015-16 was $48,976, assuming a benefit rate of 26% would make the average teacher cost $61,709 in salary and benefits to the district. Given the matrix funding per student, if the district allocated the matrix funding as suggested, the average teacher’s salary and benefits would be covered by just over 14 students. Note that this is based just on the foundation funding, not any additional mils that may be collected locally.

But teacher salaries are determined locally, so districts can essentially set the salaries as whatever they want.

The state legislated a minimum teacher salary, but districts set their own compensation schedules.  Interesting data about the differences in classroom teacher salaries come from examining district-level payments as a per student basis. On average, districts are spending near the per-student matrix amount on classroom teacher salaries and benefits. Some spend more, but others spend less.

For example, the Jonesboro school district spent less than average, about $3,962 per student on teacher salaries and benefits (again, assuming the 26% benefit). By contrast, Deer/ Mt. Judea school district spent more, with an estimated $5,357 per student on teacher salaries and benefits.

Although the district is spending more, teachers in Deer/ Mt Judea make about $10,000 less than the teachers in Jonesboro. In Jonesboro the average teacher makes a salary of $48,000, and in Deer/ Mt. Judea the average teacher makes $38,000.

How can there be such a significant difference in salary, given that the schools are funded similarly and that Deer /Mt Judea is spending more per student? It isn’t really due to district enrollment, there are large and small districts on both sides of the teacher salary data.  It has to do with staffing. In Jonesboro, the student–teacher ratio is 1 teacher to 13 students, while in Deer/ Mt. Judea, there is 1 classroom teacher to 7 students.

While we love small class sizes, this seems very low. And it isn’t just these districts: the state average ratio of classroom teachers to students is 1 to 12. State limitations on how many students can be in a teacher’s class vary from 20 (for Kindergarten) to 30 (for 7th grade and up), but every district in the state is well below the average of 1 teacher to 25 students. If the state were staffed in the 1 to 25 ratio, the average classroom teacher salary, using only existing salary funding, could double to over $90,000.


But teacher salaries are determined locally, so districts can choose to set the salaries as whatever they want!

So far we have addressed only the average teacher salary, and teacher salaries are typically based on years of experience and level of education. Arkansas teachers typically receive an increase in salary each year and additional increases for further education credits.

Districts determine how large annual salary increases are and when they ‘top out’. Some districts stop increasing teacher pay after 20 years, while others continue to 30 years or beyond.  Some districts only provide additional compensation up to a Master’s degree, while others provide additional pay through Specialist or Doctorate degrees.

So, districts should be strategic with their resources, and we have some suggestions:

Make sure spending is aligned with district priorities.

  • If high-quality teachers is your goal- make sure your salary schedule reflects that through high pay.
  • If you care more about small class sizes, make sure to communicate that being responsible for fewer students is a benefit of working with you.
  • If you want to keep experienced teachers in the classrooms, be sure your salary schedule continues increased for veteran teachers.
  • If you want to attract the best new teachers, be sure your salary schedule has high beginning salaries.

Ensure your staffing is aligned with student needs.

  • Identify your teacher needs now and hire early.
  • Actively seek out excellent candidates.
  • Have prospective teachers teach as part of the interview process, and ask for student input.
  • If trying to fill a position where there may be limited applicants (like secondary math/science), consider attract the best through a signing bonus, additional planning time, or other benefits.
  • Don’t feel like you need to hire full-time. If you just need a chemistry teacher, find one and offer a position for that amount of time. Many people like the flexibility of a less than full time job, and trying to find the best chemistry teacher who is also a tennis coach might not be the best choice for students.

Resource allocation is under district control and your local school board decides how much to pay teachers and how many students should be in each class. These decisions are under local control, so get involved!

On a side note, salary decisions aren’t limited to teachers. Principals, district staff and Superintendent salaries are also variable throughout the state and decided by local boards.  In Jonesboro, the superintendent was paid $145, 000 in 2014-15, while the superintendent in Deer/Mt Judea received $118, 000. While these salaries may seem reasonable, consider that Jonesboro served 5,382 students and Deer/ Mt. Judea served 338 students. In per student costs, the Jonesboro superintendent was paid about $26  per student per year, while in Deer/Mt Judea the superintendent was paid more than 10 times that amount.  Examining district expenditures using a ‘cost per student’ method can help districts compare their expenditures to other districts.


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