Education leaders support push for teacher pay raise; questions, concerns remain over details

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Gov. John Bel Edwards has placed teacher pay as a priority for the upcoming legislative session. Stock photo.

BY WILL SENTELL, THE ADVOCATE

Printed with permission

Family Doctors

While public school teachers are enthused about prospects for a pay raise, they are leery about details of the plan, including how it would be financed and the size of any increase, two education leaders said Monday. Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said political jousting over Louisiana’s revenue picture already has angered some of the LAE’s roughly 20,000 members. “They are not happy about that, none of us are happy about that,” Meaux said.

House Republican leaders have twice blocked efforts to recognize $43 million in new revenues, which could complicate Gov. John Bel Edwards’ plan to unveil his executive budget with $1,000 pay raises for teachers. Another part of the governor’s push is $500 pay raises for support workers, including cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, paraprofessionals and teacher aides.

Meaux said budget spats could turn the pay raise into a onetime supplemental appropriation, and scuttle the governors’ multi-year plan to get teacher pay back to the Southern regional average. House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, who opposed recognizing the money, said state officials should be cautious amid questions about the economy. The 2019 legislative session begins on April 8. Keith Courville, executive director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, known as A+PEL, said teachers need more than a $1,000 salary increase.

“I mean $1,000 is nice but it doesn’t reflect what teachers deserve,” said Courville, whose group is not a union and includes about 8,600 members. “It takes more to be competitive with other states and to reward and recognize our amazing educators,” he said. The LAE, a longtime ally of Edwards and one of Louisiana’s two teacher unions, has called for pay raises of at least $1,200 per year. Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the state’s other teacher union, could not be reached for comment. The debate here will take place amid national unrest about teacher salaries, including strikes last year that produced pay raises in Oklahoma, Arizona and West Virginia. The United Teachers of Los Angeles is set to launch its own teacher walk-out on Thursday. Louisiana has about 50,000 public school teachers.

They are paid an average of $49,800 per year, which officials say is about $2,200 below the always-changing regional average. Edwards, in comments Monday to the Press Club of Baton Rouge, reiterated that teacher pay raises will be his top priority when the 2019 regular session convenes in three months. The governor said he has met with state Superintendent of Education John White and members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to ensure that the money gets where it is intended. Public schools are financed through a complex funding system called the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP. In the past the Legislature routinely approved funding hikes of 2.75 percent for schools, with half of that amount aimed at but not guaranteed to go for teacher salaries. Edwards said he wants BESE’s plan to include funding requests within certain sections of the MFP to ensure that the money is properly allocated to pay raises.

That includes $72.2 million for teachers to finance the $1,000 raises and $25 million to finance $500 pay hikes for support workers. Another allocation will be proposed for school districts to use as they see fit. “The Legislature has been dealing with the MFP long enough that I think there will be a comfort level in doing it this way,” Edwards said. Gary Jones, president of BESE, said Monday he thinks the governor’s detailed approach will win approval from the 11-member panel. “I do think his approach is the right one,” said Jones, who lives near Alexandria. BESE submits its funding request in March. The Legislature can either approve or reject it but cannot change the proposal.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, said he is optimistic election-year pay raises will be enacted. “I haven’t found anyone who has said ‘I do not support a pay raise,’ not one person,” Morrish said. Edwards has said this year’s increase would be the start of a multi-year effort to reach the regional average by 2022. Said Meaux, “Nobody is thrilled about just $1,000, but they understand.” “If it takes several years to get us to the Southern regional average or beyond then we understand that,” she said. “However, our goal is to get to or above the Southern regional average and to stay in that position.” Louisiana reached the regional average in 2007 but then slipped below it amid recurring budget problems.

Meaux said she believes the governor’s pledge that pay raises will win approval in 2019. She said her group is not calling for any work stoppage. However, Meaux said if the Legislature fails to enact a pay raise “I can’t guarantee what will happen after that. I can’t promise where it would go from there.”