BATON ROUGE, La. (LSU Manship School News Service) - Danielle Couturier, an elementary teacher in suburban New Orleans, gets to school at 7 a.m. and often works on lesson plans until 10 p.m. But the 15-hour days are not enough to make ends meet. She also teaches summer school for extra pay.
Couturier, who has a master’s degree and 16 years of experience, makes $46,000 a year. After the first of her three children was born, she had to waitress on the weekends to earn more money.
“We put our blood sweat and tears and our whole hearts into this,” she said. “I don’t feel valued. I never have. But, I’m okay with that because that’s not why I do it.”
Teachers like Couturier have long been willing to accept being underpaid. But now many are saying enough of that.
Educators in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona reached a breaking point this year with a wave of walkouts and strikes over pay. And now, with teachers in Louisiana voicing concerns as well, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ top legislative priority is raising teacher pay by $1,800 to reach the average of just under $51,000 for Southern states.
Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, was elected in 2015 with strong support from the teacher’s union, and his wife is a former teacher. But it has taken Edwards and the Republican-led Legislature three years to stabilize the state’s finances. And while there is broad support to raise teacher pay, it could depend on whether the state is bringing in enough revenue to cover the $100 million-a-year cost without raising taxes.
“I don’t think there’s anyone that thinks that our professional teachers don’t need a pay raise,” said Sen. Dan “Blade” Morrish, R-Jennings, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “You’re going to see extreme bipartisan support.”
Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, chair of the House Education Committee, told The Advocate she would support salary raises of $1,800 to bring teacher salaries up to the regional average – if it can be done without raising taxes.
A number of Republicans voted against a deal in June that extended .45 of a cent of sales tax to solve the state’s budget shortfall, and they are against any types of tax increases. What concerns legislators is what the effect on the overall budget would be and how the proposed salary raises would be dispersed, according to Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington.
Wright said he would follow Landry’s lead on whether to support raises if taxes are increased.
East Baton Rouge school employees considered walking out on Halloween Day to protest industrial property tax exemptions requested by ExxonMobil. These exemptions would cost the school district $6.5 million in revenue, according to a letter by the presidents of the American Federation of Teachers and East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers.
However, the company’s requests were not included on an economic development board agenda for that day, so the teachers postponed the walkout.
Gov. Edwards would phase in a raise over two years, with a $1,000 increase in 2019, followed by $700 to $800 the next year, his spokesman, Richard Carbo, said. School support personnel would receive $500 pay raises. Even with those raises, Louisiana teachers would still make $8,200 less than the national average.
Roughly 60 percent of public-school funding comes through the state’s Minimum Foundation Program, a formula recommended to the Legislature by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, according to Les Landon, a spokesman for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. The 80 local school districts must raise revenue to cover the remaining 40 percent.
Teachers in other majority red states who went on strike earlier this year received pay raises ranging from 5 to 20 percent.
“I think what you saw in other states is that they didn’t have a governor or Legislature that was actively working to try and increase teacher pay,” Carbo said. “We’re in the process of doing that, and we’re going to work with them on it. We don’t see it going the route that some other states have gone.”
But teachers continue to feel strained. Couturier, 42, teaches at Shirley T. Johnson/ Gretna Park Elementary School in Gretna and has spent $2,200 of her own money on classroom supplies. Her school only reimbursed $100, and she could deduct only $250 from her taxes.
She also does not have the budget for unexpected personal expenses, like a recent trip to the dermatologist with her son for his dermatitis. She said she cannot buy the $120 medicine until her next paycheck.
“It’s very frustrating as an educator to feel like you’re not supported by not only your society but your government,” Couturier said.
A survey by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers in May showed that 60 percent of union-member respondents favored job action if they were not granted a significant pay raise, Landon said.
“We do understand that there is broad support for job actions if the Legislature continues to ignore the legitimate needs of teachers and school employees,” Landon said.
The issue will ultimately fall on the Republican-majority Legislature. State Education Superintendent John White supports the governor’s pay initiative, according to his press secretary, Sydni Dunn.
Many lawmakers are up for reelection in 2019, and K-12 education generally receives broad support among Louisiana residents. According to LSU’s 2018 Louisiana Survey, 63 percent of respondents would be willing to pay higher taxes for elementary and secondary education.
The state also is now projecting a $300 million surplus for fiscal 2019. But Morrish, the Senate Education Committee chairman, said this money cannot be tapped directly to fund an ongoing expense like teacher pay raises.
Instead, the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference, which determines state income and expense projections, is expected to meet soon to project the state’s operating revenue for next year. Morrish said Edwards seems comfortable that the forecast will include enough revenue for the teacher salary increases.
Still, Landon said he anticipates a conflict over pay raises for school support employees. In addition to the 50,000 public school teachers in the state, there are about 35,000 to 40,000 support employees, Landon said.
How to fund raises under the state cost-sharing structure could be another hurdle. Using one funding level could lead to varying pay raise amounts across school districts.
Increasing funding under another level would ensure a $1,000 pay raise to all teachers. But it also would add to the costs for teacher retirement plans, bringing the state’s total bill to $107 million a year.
And while teachers like Couturier would appreciate the help, they wish it could be more.
“It’s nowhere near what needs to happen with the amount of work and the importance of the work that goes into our careers,” she said.