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Raising Teacher Starting Salaries: What Would States Think?

Democratic presidential candidate and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is touting his education plan again, this time, on a campaign stop in Florida. One of things he likes to highlight is his call to raise the national average for teacher starting salaries to $40,000 by providing money to states (though he's not calling for a full-fledged federal law requiring the raises.) According to his plan, the cost would be $2.1 billion a year (which, incidentally, he'll pay for through savings by withdrawing troops from Iraq and other defense-oriented savings.)

According to the American Federation of Teachers latest salary survey, the average starting salary of a U.S. teacher was $31,753 in 2004-05. (New Mexico's was $33,730.)

As New Mexico's governor, surely Richardson recognizes the strain on state budgets that salary increases could cause, no matter how important they may be to improving K-12 education. After all, teacher salaries make up the largest chunk of school district budgets, and education makes up about 50 percent of state budgets in most states. Salaries are negotiated between unions and local districts, then paid for out of state budget allocations to those districts. New Mexico just approved a $5.65 billion budget for fiscal 2008, with $2.5 billion of that for education (including for teacher raises.)

Richardson's plan would have a domino effect, lasting long after those first-year teachers get higher salaries. Once starting salaries are higher, the cost of percentage-based raises each year goes up. His plan would likely affect some states more than others since it calls for raising the national average. While states could refuse to accept the federal money, pressure to raise teacher salaries would be tremendous.

And once teacher salaries are raised -- there's no going back for states. And, there's no guarantee the federal funding will continue to be there.

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