Molly Spearman at governor's newser

State Superintendent Molly Spearman said at a news conference Wednesday, Feb. 20, in Gov. Henry McMaster's office that "we've kicked the can down the road a long time" when it comes to needed changes in education. Seanna Adcox/Staff

COLUMBIA — A bill aimed at transforming South Carolina's public schools advanced Thursday in the House with some key changes teachers wanted. And legislators stress more revisions are coming.  

The move to the full House Education Committee came a day after GOP leaders reiterated the need for major reforms this year to an education system that's fallen to the nation's bottom, even while again trying to calm a teacher backlash that's stunned lawmakers in both parties.  

"We've knocked the can down the road a long time. To make the changes we need will take all of us working together," state Superintendent Molly Spearman said at a news conference in Gov. Henry McMaster's office. "If we stick to it, when the governor signs this bill this year, it will have the greatest impact on education in 35 years."

Calls for improving education intensified following The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series last November, which laid out how gaping disparities leave one-third of high school graduates unprepared for most jobs. Most elementary and middle school students statewide fail basic math and reading tests, and the statistics get worse in poor areas. 

Legislators in both chambers and parties made education reform their top priority for this session. But in the month since House Speaker Jay Lucas introduced his massive, 84-page policy proposal, teachers have fought back hard. At a five-hour public hearing last week, some called for scrapping the bill altogether and starting over next year.  

Legislators say that's not going to happen. In a Legislature that tends to deal with one crisis at a time, next year may never come. 

"I fear — from a political perspective, next year is an election year, our priorities change — I’m afraid if we’re not pushing it hard, we’ll lose the momentum and the energy behind us," Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, said in his panel's first meeting on the bill. "I'm hoping we can harness that energy to get us across the line sooner than later."

"Absolutely, this is the year," echoed Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.     

To improve the bill's chances for making it to McMaster's desk before the session ends in mid-May, Lucas hopes to advance the bill over to the Senate before the House debates the state budget. That means within the next two weeks.   

Still, there's plenty of time for amendments, lawmakers said Wednesday to calm concerns.

Hembree's panel plans to hold four public hearings across the state. On Wednesday, he announced two of them: March 18 at Gaffney High School and March 21 at Georgetown High. Both are set for 6 p.m.

Wins for teachers so far include the addition of a "Teachers Bill of Rights," which says teachers should expect a "competitive salary," unencumbered daily planning time, and pay for additional duties. 

The state budget itself will determine how much of a raise teachers get next school year. The plan advanced Thursday by the House budget-writing committee would increase the minimum salaries for young teachers between 6 percent and 10.6 percent. Those in the classroom for five or more years would get a 4 percent increase. That's in addition to the normal 2 percent bump teachers get for each additional year in the classroom. But those increases end at 23 years. 

Veteran teachers took to Facebook on Thursday to complain.

After meeting with Lucas' staff and other legislators on Wednesday, leaders of the teacher advocacy group SC for Ed, which has led the opposition, also tried to ease the acrimony from some of their 22,000 Facebook members. One teacher tweeted earlier this month that Hembree's neck should be "in a noose." 

"We ask our members to have some faith, as we believe the speaker is acting in good faith," Wednesday's post read. 

"We were really encouraged by the meeting," SC for Ed founder Lisa Ellis told The Post and Courier on Thursday. "It helps us understand how the system works, and we share information that helps them understand. ... It was really exciting for us because we felt our voices were being heard and listened to, and you see that in several of the amendments."

The new version advanced Thursday to the full House Committee no longer calls for a study on moving away from paying teachers based solely on their years in the classroom and level of college degree. Also struck is the flexibility for top-notch schools to fill up to a quarter of its staff with non-certified teachers. 

The removal of two sections generating much of the blowback from teachers "showed me they were listening to the educators, and I appreciate that," said Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

The amended bill also requires high-stakes end-of-year reading and writing tests to incorporate social studies standards, to allay concerns from social studies teachers that eliminating state-standardized tests in the subject would diminish its teaching in the classroom.

And it clarifies that literacy screenings for kindergartners through third graders must be repeated "if and only if" the first test finds dyslexia or other reading deficiencies.    

But the newest version still creates a new education advisory committee that teachers insist must go.

The bill tasks a Zero to Twenty Committee with making sure the state’s various education regulatory agencies for preschool through college work in concert to prepare students for the work world — and tell lawmakers when they are not.

But even some who agree with the goal of better aligning the disjointed agencies doubt creating another politically appointed committee is the way to do it. 

Teachers fear the committee will "turn into another group of people who tells teachers what to do," Ellis said. 

The House panel did, however, make several changes to the committee — notably no longer calling its director a "tsar," something even legislators ridiculed. 

Why not make the title "pharaoh?" asked Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden. 

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Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.