BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Facing criticism that he broke a campaign promise to teachers, Gov. John Bel Edwards reversed course Thursday and proposed a reworked K-12 budget proposal that would include a direct $500 pay hike for public school teachers.
The Democratic governor’s education policy adviser, Richard Hartley, offered up the idea to an influential education group packed with union leaders, Louisiana’s education superintendent, lawmakers, members of the state’s top school board and other stakeholders.
Edwards campaigned for reelection last year with the support of teachers’ unions and pledged to raise educators’ pay to the Southern average in a multiyear process. But while the governor and lawmakers gave a $1,000 salary boost to teachers this year, Edwards’s 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.
Instead, the governor recommended a $39 million spending hike to the flexible block grants giving to school districts through the K-12 public school financing formula. Edwards said he was encouraging districts to raise teacher pay with those dollars and remained committed to reaching the regional salary average. And he said that if the state sees additional higher-than-expected income from tax collections, he’d recommend that lawmakers send even more money to public schools.
That approach provoked accusations over the past two weeks that Edwards was reneging on his promise.
By Thursday, Edwards appeared to change his mind.
Hartley announced in a meeting of a task force that offers the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education advice about the public school funding formula that the governor now wants all $39 million of the increase required to be spent on teacher salary hikes.
“He is committed over the course of his term to raising salaries to the Southern average,” Hartley said. “He wants to ensure that amount is for teachers.”
Several task force members criticized a $500 pay raise as too low, not enough to offset rising health insurance costs or to draw more people to a profession facing shortages.
Keith Courville, executive director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, a non-union teachers group, said Edwards’ recommendation “is shortchanging people.” Courville suggested a $2,000 teacher pay raise and $1,000 salary hikes for school support workers — a proposal carrying a more than $200 million price tag.
The task force voted 16-4 against supporting Edwards’ proposal. Instead, the panel suggested to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that it ask lawmakers to raise the block grant aid to school districts by $80 million — and require half of a district’s increase be spent on teacher raises if their pay hasn’t reached the Southern average.
The debate over education financing — and how and whether to raise teacher pay — is expected to stretch across the three-month legislative session that begins March 9. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will draw up the proposed financing formula for schools next year. Lawmakers can reject or approve the formula, but they cannot change it.
At the time this year’s raises were approved, 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 increases.
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