Edwards defends teacher pay hike absence in budget proposal

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(AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As some education leaders accused him of reneging on a campaign promise, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday he remains committed to raising Louisiana’s public school teacher salaries to the Southern average, though he didn’t include a pay hike in his budget proposal.

A Democrat who won reelection in the fall, Edwards campaigned with the support of teacher unions and pledged to raise educators’ pay in a multiyear process.

But while the governor and lawmakers gave a $1,000 salary boost to teachers this year, Edwards latest $32 billion budget proposal for the financial year beginning July 1 didn’t earmark money to the further increases pledged, even as neighboring states have doled out much larger raises.

“I fully expected a teacher pay raise because the governor promised publicly that there was a multiyear plan to get us to the Southern average. Teachers are furious,” said Keith Courville, executive director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, a non-union teachers group.

Edwards defended his budget approach, which also recommends spending increases on early learning programs and public colleges.

The governor is encouraging local school districts to raise teacher pay on their own using new money he proposes to send to them through the K-12 school financing formula. His spending plan would boost the formula by $65 million — $26 million that is required to pay for existing students and a $39 million spending hike.

If the state sees additional higher-than-expected income from tax collections, Edwards said he’ll recommend that lawmakers send even more money to public schools.

“We’re going to be able to do everything we can to deliver for our children, which includes teacher pay raises, when we can,” Edwards said after a luncheon speech. “The pledge that I made in the campaign is one that I remain fully committed to.”

Courville said the school financing formula increase isn’t enough to pay for a meaningful teacher pay raise. He accused Edwards of using the formula to “pass the blame” to local school districts and superintendents if teachers don’t get a bump in salaries.

“We’re going to go to the Capitol every day to let legislators know teachers are financially struggling, and they need support,” Courville said. “We’ve got to be competitive with our neighboring states.”

Edwards’ teacher union allies have been more muted in response to the governor’s budget proposal, while insisting they’ll push for teacher pay raise money as lawmakers work to craft the budget.

“We have more time to work on the proposal and talk with the governor’s office and talk with legislators to make sure it’s a priority,” said Shane Riddle, with the Louisiana Association of Educators union.

Tia Mills, president of the union, told the Senate Education Committee on Monday that pay raises for teachers and support workers remain the group’s top priority, but she didn’t mention the governor’s budget proposal.

Edwards and lawmakers had spent $101 million this year to raise teacher pay by $1,000 and boosted salaries for school support workers, such as cafeteria staff, by $500, the first such statewide pay bumps in a decade.

At the time, teacher pay was estimated to be about $2,200 less than the Southern average. But that’s a constantly moving target, because other Southern states recently gave new rounds of teacher pay hikes.

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