ATLANTA - After years of rising salaries, Georgia's teachers were among the best-paid in the Southeast last year, but educators' groups are still gearing up to ask for another raise from the state.
The average salary for Georgia teachers was $45,938 in the 2003-04 school year, according to a study released last month by the Southern Regional Education Board. That places Georgia first among the states traditionally recognized as the Southeast and behind only two other board states - Delaware and Maryland.
"When you look at Georgia's salary compared to the other states in our region, they're pretty good," said Gale Gaines, the legislative services director at the Southern Regional Education Board.
Years after former Gov. Zell Miller vowed to try to bring state salaries up to the national average, Georgia is still shy of that mark by about $900. Across the country, the average teacher makes $46,826.
Still, the pay rate allows Georgia to attract teachers from neighboring states that don't pay as much, officials say.
"We're getting people from Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina and Florida who want to come to Georgia," said Georgia Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox, who noted that salaries are just one factor that can draw teachers to a state. "Money definitely has something to do with it."
In the past decade, according to the study, teacher salaries have risen dramatically. Since 1993-94, the state has increased pay by 49.6 percent, the largest increase of any state in the survey, though average salaries grew less than 1 percent last year.
Teachers are slated to receive a 2 percent raise beginning in January. But Georgia educators question whether that's enough in the face of rising costs for benefits such as health care.
"The last two years have seen teachers taking home less pay in reality," said Jocelyn Whitfield, the director of government relations for the Georgia Association of Educators.
The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state's largest teachers group, and GAE both say they plan to push for further pay raises when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
"We don't want to lose that edge," said Tim Callahan, a PAGE spokesman. "I think we need to keep working on that national average."
Ms. Cox said she hasn't discussed raises with Gov. Sonny Perdue, who said Wednesday that there would be little money left to spread around for new spending in the coming fiscal year beginning July 1. But she said it appeared from her conversations with educators and others that there was support for paying teachers more as a morale boost.
"They think, even if it's not much of a raise, teachers deserve something from the state of Georgia to say, 'Keep it up,'" Ms. Cox said.
She also said it was increasingly important for Georgia to keep pay high as the Peach State copes with booming enrollment and a wave of potential teacher retirements.
"If we don't keep up and stay at the top, we're not going to be able to do that," she said.
Ms. Gaines said other states are also facing tough financial times and were likely to give what raises they can next year. But she said few states are likely to make the kind of pledge Mr. Miller made when he was governor - at least for now.
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Superintendent Kathy Cox said Georgia's pay scale lures teachers from neighboring states.
average Local Salaries
Source: Georgia Department of Education, November 2003 data