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SC business groups rally support for teacher pay raises as Legislature focuses on education

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LP Liberty Hill Academy 101818_02.JPG (copy)

Teachers huddle before the start of classes at Liberty Hill Academy in North Charleston. Business groups around South Carolina have rallied support around increasing teacher pay this year. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

South Carolina’s business community is rallying support for narrowing the state’s mounting teacher shortage, linking arms with education advocates as lawmakers vow to reform an ailing school system.

The state’s largest chambers of commerce say they’re emphasizing education reform this year, focusing on teachers at a moment when educators are leaving the profession in droves.

The Upstate Chamber Coalition — a group of 12 business organizations in the state’s manufacturing-heavy northwest corner — says its top priority in 2019 is getting teachers a pay raise, even in a year when it’s calling for tax reform and infrastructure spending.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce has signed onto that call, too. Both groups say teachers in South Carolina ought to earn at least the average of their counterparts across the Southeast — a baseline that state law has called for since 1984.

The Charleston chamber also urged lawmakers to close a $487 million-a-year gap between how much the state puts towards schools and what state law requires.

When the Columbia Chamber of Commerce releases its legislative goals this month, it will call for a boost to teachers' base pay and incentives for highly sought-after positions, like science and math, chief executive Carl Blackstone said.

“Workforce is the No. 1 issue, and workforce begins with K-12 education,” said Jason Zacher, executive director of the Upstate Coalition. “Educated students are educated workers.”

The regional groups’ interest in education mirrors the state’s largest business group, the S.C. Chamber of Commerce. The state chamber said on Jan. 7 it would push the Legislature to tackle two closely intertwined issues this year: overhauling the state’s tax code and improving its workforce — in part by recruiting teachers more aggressively and working to keep them from leaving the classroom.

Increasing teacher pay and closing the state's recruitment gap are expected to be two of the Legislature's focuses this year in the wake of The Post and Courier publishing its “Minimally Adequate" series. The five-part series detailed how the shadow of segregation and Jim Crow still looms over the state’s school system, resulting in gaping inequities and leaving thousands of students unprepared for modern jobs.

“The conversation around the need for K-12 reform has really heated up in recent months in part, frankly, related to your organization’s great reporting with the ‘Minimally Adequate’ series,” said Tina Wirth, senior vice president for talent advancement at the Charleston chamber. “It’s going to be a heavy lift for the Legislature, but it’s needed.”

Teacher shortages have roiled South Carolina’s poor and rural school districts for decades, but they have spread into the wealthier suburbs in recent years. The state’s education colleges — already failing to fill all the state’s job openings — are producing fewer graduates, while a growing number of teachers are leaving the job.

Nearly 5,000 teachers left South Carolina schools last year, while the state graduated fewer than 1,700 education-focused students, according to Winthrop University’s Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement.

A competitive job market for workers has also slowed the state’s economy over the last few years after a booming recovery. Historically low unemployment has left the state little room to grow, shifting businesses’ attention to workforce issues.

“Our businesses can’t thrive without a well-prepared workforce, so we focus on improving the education pipeline, including combating the teacher shortage,” S.C. Chamber president and CEO Ted Pitts said in a statement.

Gov. Henry McMaster used his inaugural address this month to call for education reform, saying apathy would threaten the state’s recent industrial success. The state, he said, needs to commit to “providing the highest quality education for South Carolina's children if we are to continue to compete in the future for jobs and economic prosperity.”

Leaders in the state House of Representatives have also vowed to push an overhaul in the legislative session that began this week, galvanizing support at a moment when government coffers are flush with cash. Lawmakers are expected to have a $1 billion surplus this year, including more than $450 million in recurring money.

The economic case for reform has aligned business groups with traditional education advocates like the Greenville-based Public Education Partners, which has called for higher teacher pay.

“The gang’s all here — teachers, legislators, the governor, the business community, statewide advocacy groups — and the money is in the bank,” Lindsey Jacobs, the group’s policy director, wrote in a Post and Courier op-ed.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.

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