State Politics

SC teachers’ patience waning as lawmakers again pledge to fix public education

Teachers and legislators working together on bill

A coalition of South Carolina Teachers met with legislators to discuss a Teacher Bill of Rights that would address key issues including pay raises and funding schools.
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A coalition of South Carolina Teachers met with legislators to discuss a Teacher Bill of Rights that would address key issues including pay raises and funding schools.

Two days before S.C. lawmakers return to Columbia with an unprecedented desire to overhaul the state’s public education system, there is no consensus on how to stop the ongoing teacher shortage and fix the state’s K-12 education woes.

Influential S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, is working on a plan to address teacher pay, school funding and South Carolina’s poor educational outcomes. And Republican Gov. Henry McMaster will make education a priority in his executive budget and State of the State address later this month, his spokesman, Brian Symmes, told The State.

But, so far, neither of their proposals have been released, and details of their plans are scant.

The stakes are high. A faction of the state’s more than 52,000 public school teachers has warned lawmakers that, without a pay raise and efforts to lighten teachers’ workloads, they could walk out of schools in protest.

A national teacher shortage — fueled by educators fleeing the classroom for other jobs and a shrinking pipeline of college graduates entering the profession — has galvanized the education reform effort.

Ahead of the upcoming session that starts Tuesday, S.C. legislators have filed more than 100 bills seeking to keep teachers in their classrooms and fix longstanding problems that have left South Carolina near the bottom of national education rankings.

But like other prefiled bills, the vast majority of those proposals will not pass — if they even receive a legislative hearing on their merits.

While lawmakers agree education reform will be the No. 1 priority of the 2019-20 session, many are unsure which proposals their colleagues will rally behind and will be embraced by legislative leadership and the governor. Some have wondered aloud whether substantial reform is possible in 2019, given the complexity of the problem.

A number of lawmakers say they have not heard from the governor about what reforms he envisions. That includes House Education and Public Works Committee chairwoman Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, and Sen. Greg Hembree, the Horry County Republican who is expected to become chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

And the groups that advocate for the state’s public school teachers at the State House say they have not been included in high-level discussions about potential fixes that, if passed, will affect S.C. educators and their more than 775,000 K-12 students.

“Every legislator has ideas about things that could be done to improve education,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “The only way you’re going to be able to do anything (of substance) is to have statewide leadership on the issue that can bring people together and create consensus and rally the public behind those types of reforms.

“Quite honestly, the governor is the only one with the stature to do that.”

Teachers need only wait a little longer to see that the governor has their backs, McMaster’s spokesman says.

“Those teachers will see there’s a unified group of leaders in Columbia and around the state committed to, not only improving educational outcomes, but, the teaching experience in South Carolina,” Symmes said.

‘The longer it takes, the more teachers you lose’

For years, committees created by state lawmakers have studied ways to fix the state’s public education system. But those reports have mostly collected dust.

That won’t be the case this year, lawmakers say, with more momentum than ever behind passing meaningful education reform in the General Assembly this session.

That follows teacher rallies at the State House and a series of stories by The State and the Charleston Post and Courier on the growing teacher shortage and historic problems facing the K-12 system overall.

The state’s teachers have kept up the pressure over the past few months with an organized social media campaign.

Still, passing substantial education reform will be a heavy lift.

The Legislature took three years, plus a special-called session, to increase the state’s gas tax to fix South Carolina’s crumbling roads, the most dangerous in the nation. Lawmakers have talked about fixing education with varying levels of enthusiasm for two decades now.

“People shouldn’t expect us to fix it (education) in one year,” said state Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun. “We didn’t get into this mess in one year, and we’re not going to get out of it in one year.”

Still, teachers’ patience is wearing thin. They say they are frustrated by how long it has taken the Legislature to address the problems.

Teachers groups say they haven’t had meetings with legislative leaders about meaningful changes, aside from an October sit-down with McMaster that was limited to discussing the possible use of a $177 million state budget surplus for one-time bonuses for state workers and teacher.

“Whether it’s intentional or not, I can’t imagine that it is, but not involving teachers (in the process), you’re shooting blind,” said Blythewood High School teacher Lisa Ellis, who last year founded SCforED, a growing grassroots teachers group with more than 19,000 Facebook members, mostly teachers.

Kathy Maness, head of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, told The State the teachers group is hopeful for reform this session.

She said efforts must include a 5-percent pay raise — a near $155 million proposal supported by teachers groups and the S.C. Department of Education — to bring state teacher pay to the Southeastern average, and more money for school safety.

“I have a feeling this will be the year for education in the General Assembly,” Maness said. “I look forward to seeing the governor being on board with that.”

Sherry East, head of the S.C. Education Association, said she also is eager to hear Lucas and McMaster’s plans to fix education.

“The business world is asking for education to be a priority,” she said. “They want an educated workforce. Everyone thinks it’s a good idea. We just need to make it happen.”

But, she said, the “frustration level is high,” with class sizes and workloads continuing to increase. Meanwhile, teachers are telling legislators that, without reforms and higher pay, teachers could walk out or collectively call in sick, essentially finding creative ways to strike in a right-to-work state.

“The legislative process, we keep being told, is a slow one,” Ellis said. “But, while we want it (education reform) done correctly, it can’t be slow because the longer it takes, the more teachers you lose and the more education in South Carolina suffers.”

‘It’s time for us all to work together’

Behind-the-scenes, a handful of S.C. lawmakers and other elected leaders have met with the governor about his education ideas.

Last month, McMaster met with S.C. Schools Superintendent Molly Spearman, R-Saluda, in his office for about two hours.

“Education is definitely on his radar and, from the sounds of it, they’re very much on the same page,” said Ryan Brown, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education.

He has also met with Speaker Lucas, who is working on a comprehensive proposal that will address education policy and funding, according to Lucas’ chief of staff and top attorney, Michael Anzelmo.

And McMaster has met with new House budget committee chairman Murrell Smith, who now holds tremendous influence over state K-12 funding.

“The governor is excited, enthusiastic about education reform,” the Sumter Republican said. “It’s nice to have a governor that wants to work with us on enacting reforms in this state, beginning on the ground level. We know we can work together.”

McMaster also has consulted Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, a former high school teacher, who runs a nonprofit educational group.

At the pair’s Dec. 17 meeting, Fanning said, he and McMaster discussed teacher pay. Fanning said the governor “was looking at numbers,” and trying to decide how the state could pay for any improvements. They also spoke about school safety measures — including hiring more school resource officers — and eliminating standardized tests, Fanning said.

Still, rank-and-file lawmakers and S.C. teachers know little of the governor’s plans.

“I don’t think we should sit around and wait for him (McMaster) to provide a plan,” said Rep. Ott. “We all shouldn’t be twiddling our thumbs waiting on him. But we are all coalescing around the issues.”

New House Judiciary Chairman Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, said he hasn’t met with the governor on education but knows that Lucas and McMaster are working together.

“I know they’ve got a pretty big and significant package they’re going to put together,” McCoy said.

South Carolina’s teachers are looking for something significant — and fast.

“We’re not willing to wait around,” said Ellis, founder of SCforEd. “Lip service is not going to be effective for teachers this year.”

Reporter Avery G. Wilks contributed to this report.

Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.

Maayan Schechter (My-yawn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.

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