Minimally Adequate Panel Columbia

Panelists in Columbia explained a huge step in improving South Carolina's education system lies in compensating teachers. Andrew Brown/Staff

COLUMBIA — The push to increase the pay for teachers in South Carolina continues to build as lawmakers prepare to debate how to improve a faltering education system which trails other states in nearly every measure. 

A panel of experts at The Post and Courier's latest education forum in Columbia described teacher salaries as a vital component to boosting education outcomes in the Palmetto State. 

"I'll be the first one in line to say that teachers need more pay," said Mike Brennan, the President of BB&T in South Carolina and a South Carolina Department of Education Board Member. "If we're serious, why don't we pay our teachers above the national average? Why don't we be the best in the nation?"

Gov. Henry McMaster used his executive budget this week to call for a 5 percent pay boost for teachers throughout South Carolina, a move that would bring the state up to the average pay for states in the Southeast.

It was part of the larger political response to The Post and Courier's series titled "Minimally Adequate," titled after the low standard the state has set for students and schools in South Carolina. 

Traci Young Cooper, the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Extended Day Programs for Richland School District 1, said without competitive pay the state won't be able to attract the trained teachers it needs. 

"I believe the silver bullet to the many issues that were profiled can be resolved by a caring, competent teacher in every classroom," Young Cooper said. 

Consensus may be growing around the need to increase the compensation for the state's educators, but the panelists also see a need for a larger overhaul of the state's struggling school districts. 

The Post and Courier's investigation uncovered how one in eight schools in South Carolina are intensely segregated with more than 90 percent minority students. That divide has led to gaping disparities and a long list of inequities. 

Hayward Jean, a principal at Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5, gave a voice to that racial gap, and he called on state leaders to come see the conditions some of the state's poorer school districts operate under.  

"It really feels like our rural schools are third world countries," said Jean. "Can I be real? It feels like segregation. I invite you. Come to our area. Feel the pain that we feel."

State Superintendent Molly Spearman and other speakers at the forum advocated for the state's "out-dated" funding formula for schools to be reformed in order to ensure every student has a chance no matter where they live. Spearman said that thorny issue has been "patched over" for decades. 

"Intelligence does not know zip codes," said Jon Pedersen, the Dean of the University of South Carolina's College of Education. 

To this point, there has been no overarching plan announced in the legislature to reform the state's education system. But House Speaker Jay Lucas and other legislative leaders have called for it to be a priority in the 2019 legislative session. 

One of the most important alterations to make, Spearman and other panelists said, is to simply raise the stated goal beyond a "Minimally Adequate" education. 

"Could you imagine if Boeing said we are going to make minimally adequate airplanes?" asked Brennan. "Could you imagine if BMW said we are going to make minimally adequate vehicles?"

This year may decide whether South Carolina sets loftier expectations for its students. 

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.