ATLANTA - As the 1990s turned into the early 2000s, Georgia educators held the enviable position as easily the highest-paid teachers in the South.
Through last year, they still clung precariously to that status, despite two lean years that followed a decade of aggressive pay raises pushed by two governors.
This year, that could change.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed a 2 percent pay raise for teachers and other state workers in next year's budget after no raise last year and the equivalent of a 1 percent bump this year.
Meanwhile, states like Virginia and North Carolina have closed the gap, and - depending on several variables - could pass Georgia when new teacher pay figures are available.
"We were all aware we were losing ground," said Merchuria Chase Williams, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. "Any time you miss a year, then get a minimal raise the next year, you're going to lose ground."
Last year, Georgia public school educators earned an average annual salary of $45,938, according to the Southern Regional Education Board. The figure trailed only Delaware and Maryland in the board's 16-state region and was $888 less than the national average.
Georgia teachers had been $5,200 below the national average in the early '90s, before Gov. Zell Miller, a former college professor, pushed a series of pay raises that moved the state's teacher-pay rank from 34th in the nation to 16th.
Gov. Roy Barnes followed with pay raises for teachers each year of his four-year term. Between the 1993-94 and 2003-04 school years, Georgia's average teacher pay grew an impressive 49.6 percent.
But Perdue took office in 2003 amid a national recession, and the state budget reflected that. Teachers and other state employees received no pay raise last year.
This year, they technically received a 2 percent raise, but it didn't kick in until January - effectively creating a 1 percent raise in overall annual salary.
Meanwhile, other Southern states have been gaining ground on Georgia. Last year, Virginia teachers earned an average $44,628 - $1,310 behind Georgia - and North Carolina educators were paid $44,076 - $1,862 behind.
"Georgia had been significantly ahead of other states," said Mark Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board. "Georgia is still near the top, but the spread, or difference, has decreased."
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner has proposed a 3 percent increase in teacher pay this year. North Carolina lawmakers don't have an official proposal on the table, although there's been talk of a 3.5 percent raise.
Other Southern states are expected to gain ground, too. Mississippi, where teachers earned just $35,684 on average last year, is considering an 8 percent raise.
Throughout the South, "three and four percent (raises) are going to be kind of the norm this year, with Mississippi probably being at the top," Musick said.
A state's average teacher pay is affected by multiple factors besides raises approved by state lawmakers. For example, a state with more veteran educators, who earn the top pay scale, will have a higher average salary than a state with more young teachers.
A state that institutes a new early retirement system can drop in the rankings quickly when highly paid veterans leave in large numbers.
Georgia education officials say Perdue's 2 percent proposal - which will cost the state about $106 million - shows his commitment to education, considering the tight budget the state still faces.
"I know how hard it was to find that $106 million," said state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox, a former state representative. "I personally don't think it's enough, but at the same time we have hospitals and the elderly and children in foster care. There's just so much in state government."
Educators fear that if Georgia slips in the pay rankings, it will make recruiting new teachers even more difficult at a time when the entire nation faces a teacher shortage.
"When they can go other places, especially when they are young and just out of college, it's so easy for them to go where the money is," Williams said.
Southern Regional Education Board: http://www.sreb.org
Georgia Association of Educators: http://www.gae.org
Georgia Department of Education: http://www.doe.k12.ga.us
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