One of my first meetings after being elected in November 2012 was with Charleston County School District Superintendent Dr. Nancy McGinley. I can remember her describing the funding allocations and cost for the district in great detail. She described how the county had significant cost associated with teachers challenging the non-renewal of their contracts. She also revealed the onerous task faced by a principal who wishes to terminate an ineffective, problematic or even insubordinate teacher. As I listened to our superintendent describe the accommodations in place for failing teachers and the strong-arm negotiating that led to those accommodations, it occurred to me that South Carolina, a proud right-to-work state, has let a union creep silently into its most important industry.
That's right, our schools are, at least when it comes to firing failing teachers, at the mercy of a union. How is it possible that a teacher who has been deemed to be ineffective, lazy or simply not up to standards is allowed to challenge when the employer has decided to not offer a contract again? We have worked hard to ensure that Boeing, Michelin, Continental and other successful industrial enterprises are not subject to regulations that prevent them from running an efficient and productive business. Yet the industry (make no mistake, considering the money that is spent on schools, education is an "industry") which educates the future leaders of our state is bogged down with draconian labor regulations.
After I met with Dr. McGinley, I worked hard over the next 14 months in an effort to understand the protections given to failing teachers and how I might be able to fix the troubled termination process by changing the law through legislation. A few weeks ago, after meetings with principals, administrators, legal counsel for school districts, student focused special interest groups and the state superintendent of education and his staff, I introduced four bills that I believe will change the landscape of education and will increase the quality of teachers in our classrooms. It starts with a simple premise - a capable teacher is an essential piece of the puzzle for a great education.
I first introduced S.1057, which would eliminate the appellate process for teachers. What I found is that a teacher who is underperforming is given numerous opportunities to improve along the way, including an informal evaluation, an improvement plan including a mentor, and a formal evaluation including a three-person panel review. As an aside, I am not aware of any other job in the state in which a failing employee would be given such broad accommodations.
The process of terminating a failing teacher can take up to two years. That is just to get to the non-renewal of the contract. Those are two years that our children spend with a teacher who has been identified as sub-par. As a parent, I would like to know if my child is being taught by a teacher who has been identified as underperforming; therefore, I introduced S.1058, which would require parents to be informed if a teacher has been identified as underperforming and is engaged in the appellate process.
I learned that underperforming teachers often will game the system and challenge their non-renewal up until they get another job in another county. To address this problem, I introduced S.1059, which would require the state superintendent of education to create a database of all teachers who are put up for non-renewal to ensure that other school districts are informed when these underperforming teachers apply in their district.
Finally, after speaking with a group that is focused on students, I introduced my final education bill, S.1144, which would allow for a district forced to reduce its number of teachers to retain those who are most qualified. The current system requires such a district to factor in how long a teacher has been with the district when deciding which teachers to retain. The decision on which teachers to retain should be based solely on merit. This bill allows the district to keep the best teachers, not just those with the most time in.
I can remember on the campaign trail telling potential voters that I am "in the foxhole with them," referring to the fact that I own a local business and have children in public schools. I am for good teachers and believe we need to pay them better, which is why I co-sponsored Sen. Darrell Jackson's bill to raise teacher pay to the national average. I also believe we need to give our principals the tools to do their job and not second guess them when it comes to their decision to not renew a teacher's contract.
Our laws already protect employees from illegal firing, such as in the case of discrimination, but the ability to appeal a non-renewal is a step that needs to be eliminated.
A recent article put Charleston County's bill for these non-renewal appeals at approximately $150,000 per year, which is real money taken away from the classroom and our children. We are fortunate that, because of the size of the Charleston County district, we can replace teachers who have been non-renewed but are appealing. In smaller rural school districts, the district has to get a substitute to fill in until the appeal process is complete. This further impacts the educational environment of those students.
These four bills will be discussed today in a Senate education subcommittee. I am looking forward to hearing from the public about these ideas and others that can improve our children's education.
Paul Thurmond, a Republican, represents District 41 (parts of Charleston and Dorchester counties) in the S.C. Senate.