SC teacher of the year dinner

Teachers from South Carolina attended an annual dinner on Wednesday to celebrate some the state's best educators. The event came exactly a week after roughly 10,000 people marched on the Statehouse calling for education reforms. 

COLUMBIA — Last week, South Carolina's teachers created a sea of red outside the doors of the Statehouse, pressuring lawmakers to pass an education reform package this year. 

But on Wednesday night, it was the state's turn to roll out the red carpet for them. 

Educators from throughout the Palmetto State attended a dinner Wednesday night where they announced the 2020 South Carolina Teacher of the Year - Chandra Jefferson of Fairfield County.

The event is an annual celebration for teachers that work in classrooms in South Carolina's more than 80 school districts.

But this year carried extra weight as teachers and education advocates continue to lobby state lawmakers to increase wages, shrink classroom sizes, add more mental health counselors and change the funding formula for the state’s schools.

Roughly 10,000 teachers and their supporters packed the Statehouse grounds last week calling for lawmakers to change the system. At least seven school districts were forced to cancel classes because of the number of teachers that traveled to Columbia. 

The movement didn't gain the support of Gov. Henry McMaster or State Superintendent Molly Spearman, both of whom put out statements advocating against the march that was orchestrated by the teacher advocacy group SC for Ed. 

But on Wednesday night, McMaster and Spearman celebrated some of the same teachers who exited their classrooms to send a message to the General Assembly. 

"It brought unity to the teachers," said Cassandra Luttrull, a special education teacher at Edgefield County's only high school who took part in the rally.   

Luttrull's grateful lawmakers plan to raise salaries for teachers between 4 to 10 percent, with newer hires receiving the larger pay bumps. But she wants to see lawmakers do more to address the state funding issues that affect her students. 

McMaster opened his speech to the dinner crowd by poking some of the lawmakers in the room about why the broader education reforms weren't ready for his signature. 

"I don't know why you aren't back up there working on that education package," McMaster said. 

There weren't any protests during the elegant dinner Wednesday night. The teachers traded in their protest signs for wine glasses and their red T-shirts for gowns. 

But that didn't stop some of the attendees from sending more subtle messages. 

Red heels, red ties, red dresses and other red accessories could be seen throughout the dining room, as McMaster and Spearman took the stage. All five of the finalists for South Carolina Teacher of the Year had red bows pinned to their chests. 

Emilee Meek, the Teacher of the Year for Aiken County, displayed a large pair of dangling red earrings. She couldn't find a substitute teacher to cover for her so she could protest in Columbia last week. But the earrings were a clear sign of her support for the cause. 

Trish Edwards, a retired teacher of 33 years who now works with education students at the University of South Carolina, also wore a bright red dress to the dinner. She wanted to make her feelings known, the same way she did last week when she joined the throngs of people along Assembly Street. 

"It's time," Edwards said. "I'm afraid my people aren't going to last a year in the classroom." 

McMaster, to the delight of the crowd, agreed that more needed to be done to improve the state's education system and keep teachers in the profession. If the state fails to act, he told the teachers, it will be a "disaster."

"There's not a reason in the world why we cannot be known to have the best education system in the United States," McMaster said as he finished his speech. 

Any changes to the system will have to wait another year, however. The General Assembly has only one more day left in the legislative session.  

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

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