COLUMBIA - A Senate panel will consider increasing teachers' salaries and strengthening student loan programs as a way to elevate the profession in South Carolina.
The newly created Senate Committee on Public School Teachers took testimony Tuesday on how the state can encourage more students to become public school teachers, keep good teachers in the classroom and more quickly remove incompetent teachers.
"We are alarmed that we're not producing enough teachers each year to fill vacancies in the classroom," said Jane Turner, director of the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, located at Winthrop University.
South Carolina's colleges graduate about 2,000 education majors yearly - enough to fill half of the 4,000 annual openings. That means the remaining slots must be filled by teachers from another state or country, people with alternative teaching certifications or substitutes, she said.
The center has launched an initiative aimed at strengthening training and mentoring programs for new teachers, Turner said.
"We're losing teachers very early on," she said. "A first-year teacher doesn't have everything they need to be an effective teacher."
The center is also reviewing a college loan forgiveness program to ensure it benefits students and schools as intended. Graduates can have their loans forgiven by teaching in a subject or school designated as high need. If not, they must pay back the low-interest loan, but there's a concern some students enter the program with little intentions of having the loan forgiven.
"Are we targeting folks who most need the loan, and are we targeting the right school?" Turner said.
Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins, a panel member, introduced a bill in January to raise the salaries of South Carolina teachers to the national average over five years. It died without getting a vote.
South Carolina's minimum salary schedule for teachers is based on their degrees and years in the classroom. But actual pay varies by district. In 2012-13, average salaries ranged from $39,800 in Allendale County to $52,400 in Horry County.
Turner said the center wants to survey teachers on their working conditions and morale. Pay is important, but it's just part of the equation, she said, noting that low-performing schools also tend to have high teacher turnover rates. Six rural districts had more than 20 percent turnover in 2012-13, with McCormick County topping the list with a 26.5 percent turnover rate.
Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, urged legislators to put more money in a scholarship program designed to draw South Carolina's top students into public school classrooms.
The Legislature launched the rigorous Teaching Fellows Program in 1999 to address teacher shortfalls. It calls for up to 175 students to be chosen annually for scholarships of up to $6,000 a year for four years, involving them in intensive training and required community service projects beyond that of other education majors. To ensure South Carolina's children benefit from the program, fellows must teach in a public school for at least as many years as they received the scholarship, or pay back the money.
Maness wants more slots funded, noting that between 700 and 900 seniors apply yearly. More than 70 percent of the program's graduates are still teaching in a public school in South Carolina, and most of them are in a high-needs school, according to the teacher recruitment center.
"The Teaching Fellows program is the best thing in the state of South Carolina for getting new teachers here," Maness said.
The president of the South Carolina Education Association took a more critical tactic. She laid much of the blame with state lawmakers, saying they haven't supported teachers or adequately funded public schools for decades.