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While public school teachers may get their first substantive pay hike in six years, low salaries are not a glaring issue for new teachers.

Louisiana ranks 17th in the U.S. for starting salaries, above the national average.

New teachers are paid an average of $40,128 compared with $38,617 nationally, according to 2016-17 figures compiled by the National Education Association.

It is roughly what new teachers get in Texas, Rhode Island, Delaware and Washington.

But all that changes drastically in a few years.

The average salary for all teachers in Louisiana is 37th in the nation and the ranking is falling, according to the education group.

Pay averaged $50,000 in 2017, the latest figures available for comparison purposes.

The national average that year was $59,660.

The state ranked 34th in 2016.

Officials said a decade of state budget problems and action sparked by a worsening teacher shortage helps explain the gap.

Recurring budget troubles have already pulled teachers salaries here below the average set by the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

The state, after years of trying, finally hit that target for the financial year that began July 1, 2008.

But it slipped below the average in 2013, which is a key reason Gov. John Bel Edwards has proposed boosting pay by $1,000 this year, and more in future years, to again reach the education board benchmark by 2022.

In addition, fewer people are entering the profession.

The number of students finishing teacher preparation programs has dropped 18 percent in Louisiana since the 2010-11 school year, part of a nationwide trend.

Also, basic state aid for public schools, which is supposed to help with teacher pay, has been frozen for 10 of the past 11 years.

"I believe in the past, possibly over the past 7-10 years, local school boards have focused on maintaining and increasing their pay scales on starting teacher salaries," Shane Riddle, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Association of Educators, said Tuesday in an email.

The drop-off starts in about the fifth year of teaching, Riddle said.

That means periodic increases for teachers in Louisiana are not keeping pace with Southern states and others, he said.

"So bottom line is that local school districts are focusing on adjusting their pay scales upwards on the front end at a higher pace than through the middle and end of the schedules trying to entice teachers to the profession," Riddle said.

Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, made a similar point.

Carter said that, for the past five or 10 years, school districts have focused on offering competitive salaries to attract teachers because of shortages.

Keith Courville, executive director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, said salaries start falling behind here partly because teachers have less incentive to earn advanced degrees.

"We have a culture in our state of not valuing higher education attainment," he said.

Courville said that, when he was a teacher, he spent two years investing in a master's degree that only resulted in a $500 per year raise.

"If you look at raw calculations it was not worth it in terms of how much money you spent," he said.

"Even states with starting salaries lower than us you might get a $5,000 raise once you get a master's degree," Courville said. "So they are above us once you get the master's degree."

The governor's proposal, including $500 pay boosts for support workers, enjoys wide support in the Legislature, at least in concept. 

Disagreements remain on the exact size of the increase, who should be included and how the raises should be financed.

The 2019 regular session, which will take place in an election year, begins on April 8.

The debate comes amid teacher unrest in Louisiana and elsewhere, including an ongoing strike in Los Angeles and teacher job actions over pay last year in Oklahoma, Arizona and West Virginia.

Louisiana's roughly 50,000 teachers are supposed to get half of any increases in annual state aid for public schools, which is allocated through a funding system called the Minimum Foundation Program.

MFP dollars have been frozen for most of the past decade.

Edwards wants this year's increase to be spelled out in the MFP so that teachers are guaranteed the money.

The latest SREB comparison figures — 2015-16 — showed teachers were paid $1,250 below the regional average.

The governor says that gap is now about $2,200, and that it will take three years of salary hikes to reach the education board target again.

Teachers in New York have the highest average salary at $81,902, according to the NEA figures.

Oklahoma was ranked 50th at $45,292, which will change after last year's pay raise.

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Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.