ATLANTA - Georgia teachers are still paid below the national average, but they moved up three slots to 24th last school year and lead the Southeast, according to an annual National Association of Educators salary survey.
The nation's largest teachers union estimates Georgia teachers, with an average salary of $36,042, now earn closer to the national average than at any time this decade, according to a copy of NEA survey results obtained Monday by Morris News Service.
Georgia NEA officials say the commitment of Gov. Zell Miller and state lawmakers to raise teacher salaries 6 percent a year has paid off.
"We are just so proud," said Kay Pippin, lobbyist for the state's NEA affiliate, the Georgia Association of Educators. "This shows what Gov. Miller intended to do is happening. It shows when a commitment is made and the General Assembly puts its mind to it, significant progress can be made."
The NEA rankings sent to affiliates recently are estimates, and final figures may not be available for weeks. However, Ms. Pippin said the final figures usually aren't much different than NEA estimates.
The survey estimate put the average Georgia teacher salary for the 1996-97 school year at $2,467 below the national average of $38,509, but well above the regional average of $33,051.
Georgia climbed from 27th to 24th, the NEA's tentative rankings show. Virginia was closest to Georgia in the Southeast with an average salary of $35,837, ranking 27th in the country.
South Carolina, with an average salary of $32,659, ranked 36th in the country.
Georgia teachers have traveled a bumpy road to their current 24th-place ranking.
In 1984, before the far-reaching Quality Basic Education Act was approved by then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris and the General Assembly, Georgia ranked 38th in the country on the NEA's annual survey of teacher pay. The act pumped more money into salaries, and by 1989, Georgia ranked 25th, with annual pay that was only $1,529 behind the national average.
Then the recession hit, and Georgia fell back to 34th in 1993 and 1994.
Mr. Miller was re-elected in 1994 promising to raise teacher pay 6 percent each year of his second term.
The average pay hasn't increased 6 percent a year because some higher-paid teachers left the system and newer, lower-paid ones replaced them, and because some systems haven't passed along the local portion of the raises.
"My goal was twofold: to become first in the Southeast and to be at the national average," Mr. Miller said. "We've met one, and I haven't given up on the second one yet.
"Frankly, we would have been at the national average if local systems had passed the full 6 percent along. The governor and the General Assembly did their part," Mr. Miller added.
Richmond County has given its teachers the full 6 percent raises, but other systems, such as Cobb County, have balked at the large increases.
State Board of Education Chairman Johnny Isakson, said of the NEA rankings, "I'm proud of it. I think Gov. Miller deserves the credit."
Mr. Isakson said higher pay may help Georgia school systems keep some of the teachers who in the past have quit education within their first five years on the job because of low salaries.
"If you're going to have a world-class school system, then you need to be world class in every component," he said.
Ms. Pippin predicted Georgia teachers will make further gains during the current 1997-98 school year because more systems have passed along the local portion of the 6 percent raise.
"Systems are doing a better job in the current school year than the last school year," she said.
If pay increases at the same rate as in 1997 the next two years, the average annual teacher salary in Georgia will be about $40,000 by the time Mr. Miller leaves office in January 1999.