The average teacher salary hit almost $44,400 last year, according to a survey by the American Federation of Teachers.

That salary reflected a 2.7 percent increase over the previous year. New teachers were paid an average starting salary of $30,719, up 3.2 percent.

The figures were for the 2001-02 school year, the most recent available.

The better salaries for the first-time teachers and a slow job market in fields outside teaching helped shrink a national teacher shortage, the survey reports. But overall, state financial woes have slowed pay raises in education.

"We can't afford to ignore and lose experienced teachers, whose salaries are not showing much improvement," said AFT President Sandra Feldman.

Significant teacher shortages remain in such fields as math, physics, biology and Spanish, the survey said.

California had the highest average teacher salary at $54,348. Others at the top were Michigan ($52,497), Connecticut ($52,376), Rhode Island ($51,619) and New York ($51,020).

Among the states, South Dakota had the lowest average salary at $31,383. Puerto Rico came in at $25,430.

The AFT contends teacher salaries would still be lower than those of white-collar peers -- such as midlevel accountants and engineers -- even if teachers worked a 12-month year. Factoring in an extra 35 days of work would push the average teacher salary to $52,541, the survey said.

The union represents more than 1.2 million teachers and school workers, university faculty, nurses, health care workers and government employees.

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