There’s been an ongoing debate in Arkansas over the last several years about public school teacher pay. Before this year, the starting salary for an Arkansas teacher was just $36,000. Thankfully, thanks in large part to the leadership of Governor Sarah Sanders, this is starting to change: as part of the historic LEARNS Act, starting teacher pay will now be $50,000, one of the highest in the country. This will almost certainly help Arkansas attract and retain better educators, which will have long-term benefits for the next generation.
Even so, detractors have continued to argue that teacher pay in Arkansas is too low and the LEARNS-generated pay raises are insufficient.
But the reason Arkansas teachers haven’t been making more money is not because of a lack of funding. Indeed, Arkansas spends more on education today than it ever has, and it’s climbing again this fiscal year.
The real issue, or at least part of it, is that far too much funding is being absorbed into school bureaucracies instead of going into the classroom.
In 2022, Arkansas passed a budget that spent $2.3 billion on education. That is more than 40 percent of general revenue.
Then, in 2023, Arkansas increased that by another $75 million. This is more than Arkansas has ever spent on education.
In total, taxpayers forked over $34.5 million per year for Arkansas superintendent compensation in Fiscal Year 2023. This data, produced by the Arkansas Department of Education, accounts for all expenditures coded to superintendent salaries, such as salaries, severances, etc.*
The average Arkansas school superintendent received about $132,000 in FY23 (in terms of total expenditures). Yes, you read that right. And that’s just the average; some received much more than that.
But at the same time, these high compensation rates don’t necessarily mean the school district is performing well. Indeed, some school districts that spend the most on superintendents have a shockingly high number of failing schools.
Let's take a look at West Memphis, for example, where taxpayers spent more on superintendents in FY23 than anywhere else. According to the most recently available data, they received a cool $551,000 in the 2023 Fiscal Year.
(According to ADE, approximately $350,000 of this went to a severance package for a previous superintendent.)
But shockingly, the West Memphis school district has 100% of its students in either D-rated or F-rated schools.
To be clear, the district where taxpayers spent the most on superintendents has all of their students in schools that are failing.
And what about teachers in West Memphis, the ones doing the actual classroom work? Are they getting to share in wealth? Not quite.
Per state data, the average teacher salary in the West Memphis School District is just $50,235 – less than 10 percent of what taxpayers spent on their superintendents to sit behind a desk all day (and in severance pay) – while the entire district is D-rated or worse.
Unfortunately, this is not isolated to just West Memphis: in the Pine Bluff School District, taxpayers spent $270,000 on superintendent pay. But almost every single one of their schools is failing.
And their average teacher pay for 2021–2022? Just $45,172, below the statewide average, just like in West Memphis.
So what could be done instead with the $34.5 million Arkansas taxpayers spend on bloated superintendent compensation?
Well, theoretically, that’s enough money to give every single one of Arkansas’s roughly 36,000 teachers a nearly $1,000 raise.
In West Memphis, the $551,000 in total superintendent spending could give every teacher a nearly $1,600 pay raise.
Thankfully, Gov. Sarah Sanders has worked to close the teacher-superintendent pay gap by providing much-needed salary increases for teachers across Arkansas. But the work is not yet done: a system where the worst-performing superintendents soak up six-figure compensation packages while Arkansas teachers scrape by and schools continue to fail is unfair, plain and simple.
Contrast this with how things work in the private sector: when a private school fails, they lose students and money. People lose their jobs and schools even shut down. But it seems that even when public schools fail, their superintendents still get a payday, while kids and teachers are left behind.
Truly, the only way to improve accountability in Arkansas’s public school system long-term is with full educational freedom, which is on its way, thanks to the LEARNS Act.
Education freedom via LEARNS will bring real accountability to the entire education system: instead of continuing to reward failure, parents will be able to 'vote with their feet' and stop subsidizing bad behavior by moving their kids to schools – public or private – that best fit their needs.
If a school isn't performing or is choosing to compensate their superintendents four or five times what they pay their teachers, parents can now have a say in that. They can instead choose to reward high-performing schools that focus on students and high-quality learning rather than bloated administrative pay.
And we will likely even see districts start to reward high-quality, high-performing teachers in order to improve education outcomes – even if that means pay cuts for over-paid superintendents.
As the state’s superintendent expenditure data shows, we are in desperate need of more accountability in our education system. Thankfully, it is on the way.
*UPDATE, 6:44pm, September 7th: The original version of this blog post did not discern between individual superintendent salaries and total spending on superintendents, such as severance pay or pay to multiple superintendents, which was not discernible from the original data provided by the Arkansas Department of Education. For example, significant severance payments were made to several superintendents in FY23. The amounts of these severance payments – which are as high as $350,000 in West Memphis – further underscore the exorbitant nature of superintendent expenditures in Arkansas. The article has been updated to reflect this further nuance.