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A national study on public school teacher salaries for the 1989-90 school year shows that average teacher pay has been rising over the years, that there is a big difference between the states, and that Utah teachers are probably somewhat underpaid.

However, more should not be made out of the statistics than is really there. The differences between states should be kept in perspective.The salary averages, compiled by the National Education Association, range from $43,153 in Alaska - where most pay is higher than the rest of the United States - to a low of $21,300 in South Dakota. Utah ranks 44th with a $23,652 average. The 51 names on the list include the District of Columbia.

The national figures do not include the pay raises given by the 1990 Utah Legislature and do not include the career ladder pay, which is considered an "option" wherein teachers perform extra work for additional compensation. However, virtually all Utah teachers participate.

If career ladder money is counted, the Utah average becomes $25,614, or 39th on the national comparison. While some other states have optional programs such as career ladders, some do not.

NEA officials said the difference between the top of the list and the bottom - some $21,853 - has been growing. It was $15,360 just 10 years ago. While that expanding discrepancy is disturbing in some respects, the NEA call for "pay equity" among the states is an unrealistic goal.

As was often pointed out in the recent debate over Utah school salaries, the cost of living and general salary scale may vary widely from state to state. While Utah may rank 44th in teacher pay, for example, most Utahns earn less than the national average. But costs for quality housing in Utah are far less than in some of the higher-paid states.

A state's living standards and quality of life must be taken into account as well as salary figures in determining how well teachers - or other workers - are paid. There is no way that a national pay scale can be fairly arrived at in the name of equity.

Letting Alaska or Connecticut, the two highest states in terms of teacher salaries, determine what should be the pay scale in Utah school systems would ignore local realities such as available finances, relative state budgets and efforts by local citizens.

Utah puts a larger portion of its budget into education than any other state and has a broader range of taxes than many states. That must be recognized as part of any reasonable equation.