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Salaries By State

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In Louisiana, the average teacher made $26,811 last year, an annual salary lower than almost anywhere else in the nation. Low pay has become such a perennial sore point there that the new governor, Mike Foster, says he'll cut his own pay if teachers' salaries don't reach the regional average within two years.

The average Connecticut teacher, on the other hand, earns almost twice as much--$50,598, according to the American Federation of Teachers. The state's teachers are among the best-paid in the nation, and top candidates compete fiercely for infrequent job openings.

Salary averages and state rankings are of keen interest to administrators, policymakers, and especially teachers themselves, but a growing number of researchers caution that the numbers can be misleading. Cost of living, education and experience, time spent on the job, and desirability of the locale all influence the size of a teacher's paycheck, and some recent studies have tried to take such variables into account.

Though the resulting adjusted salaries don't create seismic shifts in rankings, analysts hope their efforts can at least call attention to the complexities and pitfalls of comparing teacher salaries state by state. A state with a more experienced teaching force, for example, may have a higher average salary than one with many young teachers.

A new study by two economists at North Carolina State University in Raleigh weighs that particular difference, along with cost of living, teachers' educations, and job characteristics such as hours worked per week and pupil-teacher ratios. The study, which appeared in the December issue of the journal Economics in Education Review, could make teachers in some states think twice about how much they make compared with teachers in other states. New Hampshire, which ranked 25th among the states in a straight salary comparison, jumped to ninth in the adjusted ranking, while Indiana slid from 16th to 38th.

Michael Walden, one of the report's authors, says the study sought to make teachers more aware of the reasons for salary differentials. Teachers from lower-paying states, he explains, shouldn't necessarily covet the salaries of their counterparts in high-paying ones. "The mistake we don't think the teachers should make is to assume that if they go up to Connecticut and get this higher salary, they may be better off,'' he says.

Yet, some teachers might still be justified in making that assumption even after looking at the findings. According to the study, Connecticut ranks second in the nation behind Alaska both with and without the weighted salary rankings. But North Carolina, 29th in the unadjusted rankings, slips to 35th after the researchers' adjustments. And of the states that placed in the bottom fourth of all the states in the unweighted salary ranking, 11 of 13 remained in the bottom fourth after the researchers included the other factors.

In a report released in October, researchers at the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics offer their own salary-comparison scale. The authors of the report, Public School Teacher Cost Differences Across the United States, created a geographic teacher-cost index that accounts not only for differences among districts in their requirements for teacher qualifications but also for a location's attractiveness as a place to live and work.

The researchers began with $23,000 separating the highest and lowest paying states. After using their regional-cost index, the difference narrowed to about $14,000. Still, the weighted rankings appeared to make little difference in the placement of top- and bottom-ranked states. For both the unadjusted comparisons and the weighted rankings, Connecticut and Alaska held the top two slots and South Dakota and Arkansas remained at the bottom.

Jewell Gould, director of research at the American Federation of Teachers, says the researchers' efforts show what a delicate business comparing salaries can be. The union recently released its own annual analysis of average teacher salaries. That analysis, Survey and Analysis of Salary Trends 1995, offered state salary rankings with adjustments for cost of living, teacher experience, and employee contributions for retirement and Social Security.

"There is a national market for teachers,'' Gould says, and states or districts with low averages "have to be able to explain that things are a little bit cheaper.'' Gould also points out that statewide comparisons often cannot account for important local variations, such as the political priorities of individual counties and districts. Leaders in some communities, he says, may have cut their education budgets, even as statewide averages have grown.

John Dunlop, director of collective bargaining and compensation for the National Education Association, cites an additional difficulty with weighted comparisons: Researchers often receive inconsistent information from state to state on such variables as contributions for health insurance.

Given all the complications, most researchers consider state rankings to be little more than crude measures of relative compensation. "State comparisons are very rough, aggregated numbers,'' warns Allan Odden, an education-finance expert at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who is leading a project on teacher compensation. "They just tell you Connecticut spends more than Mississippi--they give you some rough orders.''

Carl Frantz, coordinator of evaluation for two Louisiana teacher training programs, agrees. "It's OK to look at Connecticut,'' says Frantz, who has studied Louisiana's high teacher attrition rate. "But the real question is, are our salaries adequate to attract and keep teachers? And the answer is no.''

--Jeanne Ponessa

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