Teacher signs on lobby day (copy)

These are some of the signs teachers carried at the Statehouse on Tuesday, Jan. 29. They had to put them down to enter the House gallery, where Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, formally recognized them. File/Seanna Adcox/Staff

At 9:45 a.m. Wednesday, several thousand teachers and their supporters will march two blocks from the S.C. Department of Education to the Statehouse for a day of protests, speeches and picketing.

In a state without teacher unions or a recent history of mass teacher protests, parents and teachers are bound to have some questions about what's going on. Here are a few answers:

Will my school close for the day?

Most schools are staying open despite the protest. As of 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, seven districts had announced they will cancel classes due to a lack of substitute teachers.

They are Chester County School District, Colleton County School District, Dorchester County School District 2, Lexington-Richland School District 5, Richland County School District 1, Richland County School District 2 and Sumter County School District. Palmetto Scholars Academy, a public charter school in North Charleston, will also close.

The closing schools serve a combined 123,000 students.

In the Charleston area, Berkeley County, Charleston County and Dorchester 4 schools have all said they will remain open despite receiving hundreds of requests for substitute teachers. As of Monday, 336 teachers had requested personal leave days in Charleston County alone, about 9 percent of the district's teacher workforce.

If your child goes to school Wednesday, her substitute teacher might not actually be a teacher. The Charleston County School District has said it's bringing in extra subs including "all central-office staff." Some schools also are reporting that some classes will be combined for the day.

What do the teachers want?

Higher pay. Smaller class sizes. More mental health counselors for students. 

The teacher-led activist group SC for Ed, which organized the event, criticized some of the legislation lawmakers introduced in the name of fixing South Carolina's education system this year.

Suspicious of a privatization agenda, SC for Ed organizers strongly opposed the proposed creation of a private school voucher program and the creation of a new education oversight agency overseen by the governor.

Teachers have also taken aim at problems with the state's education funding system, which the S.C. Supreme Court declared fundamentally inequitable in 2014 but which the Legislature has refused to change.

They also take issue with Act 388, a 2006 law that prevents homeowners from paying property tax toward school operations. The change blew a hole in the state's education budget for years during the last recession and shifted much of the tax burden for school funding onto renters and business owners.

As a result of the Legislature's chronic under-funding of its own education mandates, the state's antiquated school bus fleet is long overdue for replacement; classroom size limits have not been enforced since 2010; and state-enforced minimum teacher salaries have not kept up with inflation since 2003.

Is this a strike?

No. Teachers have requested to use a personal leave day to travel to Columbia for what they are describing as a "Day of Reflection." The teachers plan to return to work Thursday.

"The tactics of a strike would be longer and more aggressive. You wouldn’t call it a day of contemplation. It would be a strike," said Jon Hale, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina whose research focuses on student and teacher activism.

Will the teachers be punished?

Not likely. Teachers are allowed to take personal leave days. Unlike most workers in South Carolina, teachers are protected by a law that says their bosses must give a reason for firing them and give an opportunity to appeal the decision.

Although some state and local government officials have condemned the event, labor historian Kerry Taylor of The Citadel said it's unlikely they will take punitive action against the teachers.

"The Legislature is limited in what they can do because of the great support that teachers wield and the support that they maintain in the larger community," Taylor said.

How many people will be there?

Organizers estimate their protest will attract 5,000 participants. If that's the case, it would be the largest gathering at the Statehouse since 10,000 people showed up to watch the Confederate battle flag come down in July 2015.

Organizers said they have not been keeping track of how many expected participants are teachers.

Has this ever happened before? 

Septima Clark painting by Jonathan Green (copy)

"Septima Clark," 2018, Acrylic on Canvas, 20” x 16” by Jonathan Green. File/Provided/Jonathan Green

Not on this scale. County education associations organized sporadic strikes and pickets throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but labor historians interviewed by The Post and Courier could not recall a statewide teacher movement of this size.

South Carolina does, however, have a rich history of teacher activism, from civil rights icon Septima P. Clark to the teacher-led crusade for full-day kindergarten in the 1990s.

Why the red shirts?

South Carolina teachers have been wearing red shirts, dresses and accessories on Wednesdays all school year, and their wardrobe has also made a splash at the numerous legislative hearings they have attended.

Red became a color of teacher solidarity after Arizona's teachers started wearing the color during mass protests in March 2018. This year, the National Education Association teacher union has latched onto the color scheme in its "Red for Ed" campaign.

A 2018 column in the style magazine Racked pondered the symbolism of the color red, which can connote both schools' fiscal crises ("in the red") and the Republican dominance in states where teacher protests have been taking place.

Teachers on Money Matters lobby day (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

The SC For Ed teacher advocacy group has been encouraging teachers to wear red on Wednesdays and travel to Columbia to testify for hearings. The group is now calling for teachers to call out of work and march on the Statehouse on May 1, 2019. File/Seanna Adcox/Staff

Who's for it? 

Some local-level school leaders have expressed their support for the protest, including Chester County School Board Chairwoman Anne H. Collins, whose district was the first to announce school closures for May 1.

Locally, Dorchester District 2 board members Justin Farnsworth, Cynthia Hughes, Tanya Robinson and Barbara Crosby all said they support the teacher protest. Crosby and Farnsworth both plan to march with teachers from their district on Wednesday.

"We have advocated, we have begged, and we have shown with factual logic and detail that our state is failing our children," Farnsworth said. "That outcry is now spilling over."

Several Democratic lawmakers also have come out in favor of the teacher protest, including Sen. Marlon Kimpson of Charleston, and Reps. J.A. Moore and Marvin Pendarvis of North Charleston.

The teacher protest has attracted the interest of at least two 2020 Democratic presidential contenders: Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who held a roundtable event with teachers Tuesday in West Columbia, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who will speak with the organizers via conference call at noon Wednesday.

Who's against it? 

Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield (copy) (copy) (copy)

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, opposes the May 1 public school teacher march. File/Andrew Brown/Staff

Several prominent Republicans have condemned the protest, including Gov. Henry McMaster, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey and State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, who will be subbing in a Midlands-area classroom rather than joining the teachers Wednesday.

"This is going to be counterproductive," Massey said Monday. "Education is a really hard issue. It takes time and a lot of buy in to get it right, and we recognize that the only way you’re going to get it right is listening to the people dealing with it every day. There’s got to be conversation to get it to where it needs to be. It doesn’t seem to be productive to firebomb the bridge that allows the conversation.”

Some school districts have strongly discouraged teachers from participating in the march through public statements and private staff meetings.

"We plan to proudly STAND IN for our children as needed as we realize the potential impact of this event, even just one day, could be tremendous for some of our families," the Berkeley County School District wrote in a statement Monday.

On Tuesday, Berkeley Superintendent Eddie Ingram said he personally wrote that statement and apologized, according to WCIV-TV. "The spirit in which our statement was written was not well received by some in our community, especially our teachers whom we love, and for that we apologize," he said, according to the network.

"If you choose to reflect, you must reflect while working and providing instruction to your students in the classroom," Allendale County Schools Interim Superintendent Margaret Gilmore wrote in an email to teachers there. Gilmore, who was appointed by Spearman to run the high-poverty district during a state takeover, also wrote that she was "requesting ALL employees" to attend a meeting Monday night with Spearman.

In Charleston County, school board member Todd Garrett said he opposed teachers taking the day to protest when students already lost six days of instructional time this year to bad weather.

"They’re using kids as political stunts," Garrett said Friday. "Particularly in a year when we’ve missed six days, this is wrong. It’s wrong for the kids, it’s wrong for their working parents, and it’s wrong for the taxpayers to have to foot the bill for political activism."

What do teachers make here? 

On average, about $50,200 a year, according to the latest data compiled by the National Education Association. South Carolina's average teacher salary ranked 40th in the nation and fell far below the national average of about $60,500.

South Carolina teachers are leaving the profession faster than colleges of education can churn them out, in part because of low pay and poor morale. Teachers in the Charleston area often work second or even third jobs to pay their bills. 

A budget likely to pass this year would raise the state minimum starting salary to $35,000, nearly keeping up with inflation for the first time since 2003. At a cost of $159 million, the plan would give teachers with fewer than five years of experience up to a 10 percent boost. All others would be guaranteed at least a 4 percent raise.

What's the weather looking like? 

Warm. Weather Underground forecasts a cloudy morning and a sunny afternoon with a high of 89 degrees.

Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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