About 30 public school teachers, counselors and supporters gathered inside Charleston's International Longshoremen's Association Hall Tuesday to find their own voice and see how they might push for changes.
The meeting was called by the Quality Education Project, a nonprofit research group aware of how teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona have walked out of school in recent weeks and months to protest their salaries and treatment.
"I think there's a lot of questions about what we can do in Charleston," said Jon Hale, co-director of the project, who has heard similar complaints from teachers here.
The teachers in attendance voiced a long list of frustrations that went far beyond how much they were paid. They spoke out even more regarding class sizes, discipline problems with students, excessive testing, a lack of time to plan lessons — even parents who don't get involved and who provide emergency contact numbers that no longer work.
There was little talk of walking out, but there was talk of more meetings, including a Saturday teacher demonstration in Columbia on May 19.
Tuesday's gathering came amid a continued national wave of teacher activism, including the following:
- Arizona's public school teachers walked out Thursday, and they and their supporters marched Monday at the Capitol in Phoenix. Today marks the fourth day of their walkout.
- In West Virginia, teachers shut down public schools for nearly two weeks in March until lawmakers gave them a 5 percent pay raise.
- In Oklahoma, thousands of teachers walked off their jobs and stormed the state Capitol in early April in a strike that lasted two weeks. It ended after state lawmakers approved their first major tax hikes in 25 years to raise about $450 million for education.
As a state, South Carolina is among the most hostile to unions, but the recent teacher walkouts have occurred in other right-to-work states.
Janet Stein, director of member advocacy for the South Carolina Educational Association, said teachers who walked out in those states did have assurances from school board leaders and superintendents that they wouldn't be terminated for doing so.
"If you have the support of people who can fire you, that's very different," she said. "You don't have that in South Carolina."
Much of the conversation hovered around state and local politics, including low voter turnout. "You've got to get the right people elected to the school board," Stein said.
Some have suggested South Carolina teachers are protesting mostly by simply leaving their jobs once the school year is done — and not coming back in the fall. About 6,700 teachers did not return after the 2016-17 school year. More than 25 percent moved to other school districts, but most of them — about 4,900 — left public schools altogether.
Meanwhile, the state's average teacher salary is $48,769, which lags behind nearby states, including Georgia, Virginia and Kentucky.
It's unclear if that pay will change anytime soon, though lawmakers seem poised to raise the required minimum for first-year teachers to $32,000.
Also, the House's budget plan includes a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for teachers, while the Senate plan has 1 percent. There are also differences in the chambers' funding for base student costs and state-required step increases. They have yet to hammer out the differences.
Given that the current school year is almost over and state lawmakers are finishing up their budget work, Hale said it seems unlikely that a teacher walkout will occur here anytime soon.
“It’s never too early to begin to let the state know that something needs to be done. As they break for the summer, they can know this will be an issue for the next legislative session,” he said. “This could be the start of something larger. ... Large movements start with small steps.”
Stein agreed: "I've seen more activism and people speaking out in the last two years than the whole time I've been here (since 2002). You have to find your voice, and I know fear is there. But you're not going to get fired for speaking your voice. You're not."
Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.