By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Louisiana’s public school teachers could benefit from next year’s statewide election and the state’s improved financial outlook, as widespread support seems to be coalescing around a proposal for a teacher pay hike.
Gov. John Bel Edwards frames the salary boost as his top priority for the 2019 legislative session, and lawmakers are signaling their backing of the idea to increase paychecks that have stagnated as school districts have had more difficulty attracting and retaining teachers.
“As I talk to legislators in the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans and independents, there seems to be very strong bipartisan support,” the Democratic governor said.
Louisiana’s teachers were last paid at the Southern regional average about a decade ago.
Former Govs. Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco and the Legislature plowed millions into teacher pay raises, with Blanco and lawmakers approving a $2,375 salary boost in her final year as governor. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers raised teacher pay in his first year in office by more than $1,000, but that was the last significant statewide increase.
Ten years later, the average teacher earns $49,745 in Louisiana. Edwards said that’s about $2,200 less than the regional average.
“It’s time to begin making meaningful investments into the future of Louisiana’s children and to the dedicated teachers and paraprofessionals and school-related personnel in whom we trust our children,” said Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.
Edwards, whose wife was a teacher and whose daughter is an elementary school counselor, won the 2015 governor’s race with support from education unions. Running for a second term in 2019 while pushing a teacher pay raise would help shore up that solid base of support.
For lawmakers seeking re-election to their seats or another elected job, successfully passing a teacher salary hike also could be a record-booster in local communities, where everyone knows a teacher and where education often ranks as a top issue for voters.
Plus, after a decade of budget gaps and financial uncertainty, Louisiana has one of its most stable fiscal outlooks in years, likely giving Edwards and lawmakers the room to find dollars for a pay raise without having to wade into thorny debates about tax hikes or cuts to pay for them.
Louisiana’s income forecasting panel is scheduled to meet Tuesday to talk about next year’s financial projections, but the governor seems confident money will be available to cover the cost of a salary boost.
Edwards said he’ll seek a $1,000 pay raise for teachers and other certificated personnel such as school counselors and a $500 salary bump for school support staff such as teacher aides and cafeteria workers. He said that proposal will be part of a three-year plan to raise salaries to the Southern average by 2022. The proposal for the upcoming budget year for the raises and other block grant increases to school districts, Edwards said, would cost about $135 million.
But while the idea appears to have bipartisan support in the Louisiana Capitol, differences are emerging about the size of the pay bump and who should be included. Should they include support workers or instead give higher raises to teachers? Should they focus on hard-to-recruit positions?
Lafayette Republican Rep. Nancy Landry, chair of the House Education Committee, told The Advocate she supports teacher salary hikes if they can be done without a tax increase.
“I haven’t talked to anybody who would oppose a pay raise,” Landry told the newspaper.
However, she favored targeting all the available money to teachers, not support workers.
Carter’s organization wants support staff included. He said many of those employees earn such small paychecks they rely on social service programs to cover gaps.
“It is shameful,” he said.
Teachers and school employees in other states staged strikes for raises, and Carter said a recent survey suggested some in Louisiana are “ready to walk out today” if they don’t see movement on salaries. Edwards said he doesn’t expect such action.
“I’m not anticipating, quite honestly, any need for a walkout to make the point,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte
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