LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - The Democrat taking on Gov. Asa Hutchinson in November has said for months on the campaign trail he wants to make Arkansas the best place in the country to be a public school teacher in ten years.
On Thursday, Jared Henderson released his 10-year plan to do just that, with teacher pay raises as the top priority.
"This was needed years ago," he told the crowd during a press conference at his downtown campaign headquarters.
Henderson proposes an initial 10-percent increase in minimum teacher pay, followed by a 3.6-percent annual increase for the next nine years.
"Making them the highest paid teachers in the country in ten years adjusted for the cost of living," he said.
Henderson told supporters to do so will cost the state about $160 million in the first two years but affect more than 160 of the state's smallest school districts. The 15 largest school districts in Arkansas, besides Pulaski and Pine Bluff, already clear the $35,000 salary threshold.
In 10 years, the starting teacher salary would exceed $48,000.
"We can and we must pay our teachers like the skilled professionals that they are," he said. "It'll make it easier to keep our best people and over time, it will increase the number and talent of our youngest people who are deciding whether or not they want to choose education as a profession."
Henderson maintained his plan would not require tax increases. Instead, he would reallocate Hutchinson's promised tax breaks for the state's top income bracket, decrease the cost of corrections spending and allocate the collected internet sales tax.
"It's more about our choices than it is about our resources," he said.
Henderson called out the governor during the press conference, after Hutchinson recently announced his 13-percent pay raise for teachers during the race's first debate in Eureka Springs.
"There has not been a single sentence attached to that statement about how or when that will happen," Henderson said.
Hutchinson's campaign spokesperson released the following statement:
"Mr. Henderson is yet another out of touch liberal who wants to base increased spending on speculation and abandoning our commitment to public safety. The governor's plan to increase starting teacher pay to the highest in the region while also making our income tax rates competitive is building on what he has accomplished in his first term when we raised teacher pay twice and cut taxes for over 90% of working class Arkansans."
Henderson's plan affects K-12 teacher pay. He plans to release another proposal in the coming weeks about childhood poverty, which will include pre-K.
Henderson's education policy would also offer financial incentives and loan forgiveness to improve teacher shortages, particularly in rural and low-income communities. He told the crowd a story about a high school math teacher in the Delta who just learned he will have to teach five different subjects, while students will also still have to take several online classes.
"That is not a unique or uncommon occurrence right now," he said. "And it's not only happening in districts represented by Democrats. It's happening in districts represented by Republicans."
Henderson assured teachers their retirement system is not on the table, and he will continue to fight for quality and affordable health care and benefits packages.
"I would certainly love for them to happen in year one, but it's going to be hard," he said. "We do not have concrete steps to do that as we do with the compensation so I'm not prepared to make that promise."
Henderson's plan also includes replacing administrative burdens for teachers with "common-sense alternatives," which includes teacher evaluations.
"In some districts, our evaluation system is applied to nationally board-certified veterans the same way it is to second-semester struggling rookies," he said. "We need to make sure things like that don't happen."
Henderson also did not rule out changes to standardized testing. He said the state needs to review it to give teachers more freedom and less bureaucracy.
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