HOUSTON (AP) - Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Texas public school teachers bring home 'a very fair salary' during a debate Monday night against three big-name Republican challengers in the state's most competitive primary race.

'At the end of the day, we're paying our school teachers - when you count in cost of living - a very fair salary,' Dewhurst said. 'We need to have better results. We need to make sure that we're not just paying more money and we need to look at more choice for parents.'

Texas consistently ranks near the bottom nationally in average teacher pay according to many groups that track classroom salaries, including teacher unions. One expert testified in the state's pivotal school finance trial last year that Texas' average teacher pay was about $47,300 in 2009, which is $10 lower than the national average of nearly $55,000, and less than what 32 other states pay educators.

That trial ended with a state judge determining that the system Texas uses to finance public education is unconstitutional. New testimony is set to resume in Austin on Tuesday.

Education is already shaping to be the biggest election-year issue in the governor's race between Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis. Abbott has declined to weigh in on whether the state is adequately funding classrooms, while Davis says teachers are underpaid and decried stories of some working second or third jobs.

Dewhurst is seeking a fourth term while locked in a race featuring four largely ideologically indistinguishable conservatives: Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and state Sen. Dan Patrick.

Asked after the debate whether he agreed with Dewhurst, Staples wouldn't answer directly but said he would always look for ways to pay teachers more.

'We want good teachers in the classroom and we need a system that rewards them appropriately,' Staples said.

The primary is March 4.

Dewhurst, 68, is the only major statewide office holder trying to keep his current job, which he's held since 2002. He says he wants one more term before returning to the private sector.

Dewhurst is also by far the wealthiest candidate in the race, but spending $25 million of his personal future in 2012 still wasn't enough to defeat Ted Cruz for a U.S. Senate seat.

Staples has been agriculture commissioner since 2006 and Patterson was first elected land commissioner since 2002. Patrick has served in the Senate since 2007.

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