WASHINGTON - Teacher salaries have risen slightly in the past several years, but have failed to keep up with inflation, according to surveys released Thursday by teachers' unions.

The American Federation of Teachers said the average teacher salary in the 1999-2000 school year was $41,820, up 3.2 percent from the previous year but just short of the 3.4 inflation rate. AFT said the rise in salary was among the smallest in 40 years.

"The teacher shortage plaguing school districts nationwide will not abate unless salaries improve," AFT President Sandra Feldman said. "Better wages aren't the only way to retain and recruit teachers, but they sure make a difference."

The National Education Association's survey found that, adjusting for inflation, teacher salaries in half of the states dropped in the last decade.

The NEA said teachers in West Virginia, Arkansas and Alabama saw the largest drops in real earnings, from 12 to 16 percent, since 1989.

The surveys used data from state departments of education. The unions had slightly different calculations on state-by-state salaries, but both said Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania paid teachers the most, between $48,300 and $52,400 on average.

Montana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Dakota were at the bottom of both lists, paying teachers, on average, about $30,000. South Dakota, at $29,072, paid the lowest average teacher salary in both lists.

AFT said the average salary increase for new teachers was actually lower in 1999 than in 1998. New teachers last year earned, on average, $27,989, up 4.2 percent from the previous year. In 1998, their salaries jumped 4.4 percent, AFT said.

The group said Montana's average salary for new teachers ranked near the bottom of the list at $20,969, just ahead of Idaho's $20,915. North Dakota paid the least to new teachers, at $20,422.

The NEA report said that, between 1989 and 2000, average salaries rose by less than 1 percent nationwide, adjusted for inflation. It also said spending on K-12 education increased but didn't keep pace with the nation's economic growth.

While education revenue per student increased 3.6 percent from the 1998 to 1999, NEA said, total personal income in the United States grew 5.9 percent.

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