Arkansas Education Department Stops Plan To Reduce Teacher Bonus Pay

Feb 9, 2016

Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key testifying to a joint meeting of the Education Committees.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

A plan to scale back bonus pay for Arkansas teachers with National Board Certification was withdrawn on Monday under the direction of the governor’s office. The proposed revision from the state Department of Education was also under pressure from both the state’s largest union and non-union teachers groups.

Last week 10 House Education Committee members, including two Republicans, sent a letter to the state Department of Education lambasting the idea of ending the annual bonus after 10 years, “this latest proposal seems to be a continuation of the disturbing trend of devaluing the efforts of educators.”

Education Commissioner Johnny Key told a joint meeting of the Education committees that for the time being the program will remain intact.

“I’ve been in conversation with the governor on the National Board rules. He has requested that the Department pull those at this time. It is in the public comment phase right now,” said Key who was appointed by Governor Asa Hutchinson.

Talking to reporters afterward, Key maintained that changes to the program are still needed.

“Our effort was to try to create a situation that was sustainable. We’ll continue to look at that. We need it to be a sustainable program, we support the program,” said Key.

The rule change crafted by the department last month is intended to help deal with an impending funding shortfall. In 2007 the $5,000 bonus program, for achieving nationally certification, reached over 500 teachers. Nearly ten years later than number is closer to 2,800.

The cost of the program is projected to rise from $13.8 million annually to $16.5 million in 2018. This month state finance officials projected the state’s budget to top $5.22 billion in net general revenue in fiscal year 2016.

Speaking with reporters Commissioner Johnny Key maintained that the program can’t survive with its current structure.

Minority Leader Michael John Gray (D-Augusta) said programs that work should be funded, “I think lawmakers when they can see that, will see a reason to appropriate funds to make this a sustainable plan,” said Gray.

Asked if the current program should remain intact or be changed in some form to meet Commissioner Key’s funding concerns, Gray threw caution on reductions.

“We’ve seen results in Oklahoma where they tweaked the stipend some. They’ve seen a dramatic decline in teachers that were reaching the certification. I think we all look and go, ‘what product is the public school turning out, what’s our return on investment, are these programs working?’ This is one of the programs that’s working,” said Gray.

Determining funding for the program now heads to a subcommittee created solely for this issue. Education Chair Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs) said members have not yet been selected.

A statement from Arkansas Education Association President Brenda Robinson:

We are very pleased that the Governor took swift action today to put the brakes on a detrimental rule change that had been proposed to the National Board Certified Teacher Program. This program has shown to be an effective tool to increase student achievement. Hundreds of educators across the State advocated for their students by speaking out against this rule change and the Governor heard their call. The Arkansas Education Association will work to ensure that lawmakers continue to hear educator voices as we move forward to secure the long term financial sustainability of this critically important program. Our focus is to make certain that the best teachers are in Arkansas's classrooms so that our students have increased educational outcomes--our students are counting on it.

The statement from Arkansas State Teachers Association Director Michele Lynch spends a great deal of time talking about how some of its members are irritated the governor is allocating $3 million for Teach for America (for high achieving college graduates without education degrees or traditional licenses) but hasn't allocated an additional, roughly $3 million to highly skilled educators.

The Arkansas State Teachers Association (ASTA) is Arkansas’s non-union professional association for school employees offering educators liability insurance, legal services, professional development, advocacy and more. We are the fastest-growing education organization in the state serving thousands of public school employees.

Two education policy actions that are occurring nearly simultaneous sparred a flurry of questions and comments from ASTA members last week. We feel it’s important you understand the perspectives of Arkansas teachers as you make decisions that impact these valued professionals and their students.

As you are well aware, last week the Governor announced an increased financial commitment to and expansion of the Teach for America (TFA) program. We understand the critical and positive roles TFA educators play in the schools where they serve. TFA is one of many alternative pathways to the classroom for degreed professionals and ASTA is supportive of the important work they do. When you work with districts and educators across Arkansas as we do, you learn all too quickly there is a need for such alternatives. For example, there are many classrooms in high need areas staffed with permanent substitutes that more than likely have little to no necessary content expertise. Studies have shown that TFA members have made huge gains for precisely this demographic, and we look forward to seeing the impact they can make.

The juxtaposition that initiated comments from ASTA members occurred as educators were informed that while commitment and support for TFA was increasing, the commitment and support for National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) incentives was in jeopardy. According to a 2012 article posted on the Arkansas Department of Education website, research has “found that students taught by National Board-Certified Teachers score better on achievement tests than students whose teachers are not Board-certified. Other studies have identified improved teacher retention and improved school culture as additional positive impacts associated with National Board Certification." The article also states, “in contrast to the usual pattern of high-achieving teachers gravitating to more easily served districts, nearly 50 percent of National Board Certified Teachers serve in high-need schools." The article goes on to describe the impact NBCT teachers have on our Nation’s most fragile students. The full text of this article can be found HERE.

Although we are supportive of the promising work TFA can do for Arkansas, educators want to know why Arkansas’s NBCTs are not receiving similar support. While the need for alternative paths to the classroom exists, there is also a need to incentivize and retain our most experienced and successful teachers who have put forth the time and effort to become more effective educators by pursuing the highest form of certification possible. From what we understand, the NBCT certification process is currently the only statewide program that does just this. Research shows us that the single biggest factor in securing success for students is an excellent teacher. Arkansas depends on these teachers and needs to enthusiastically support them.

We must strike a compromise that makes room for both of these highly needed programs in a manner that does not force high performing educators to lose incentive pay because they have made a long-term commitment to the classroom and continued learning and growth. We should be balancing the merits of existing programs with new programs to ensure success for all of Arkansas’s students.