Algebra teacher at North Charleston High (copy)

Algebra teacher Kelly Young helps freshman Alex Cornell during class at North Charleston High in this 2016 file photo. North Charleston High is one of 16 schools where the Charleston County School District is now offering a $9,000 salary boost to attract and retain math teachers. File/Staff

South Carolina teachers today have a harder time affording groceries, rent and other necessities than they did a decade ago, according to the National Education Association.

While average teacher salaries have crept upward to about $51,000 since the Great Recession, they have not kept pace with inflation, or the rise in prices of consumer goods, according to the association's statistics.

Adjusting for inflation, last year's teacher salaries were worth about 7 percent less than they were in the 2008-09 school year.

Teachers' plight is not unique, however. While employment rates have rebounded from the 2008 economic downturn, a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that "wages hardly grew and have failed to keep up with increases in workers' productivity."

Meanwhile, multiple economic indicators have shown that the majority of wealth generated since the recession has gone to the wealthiest earners.

As public employees, teacher salaries are set by elected policymakers, from local school board members to the Republican-dominated state Legislature.

Jody Stallings has felt the strain. For the last eight years, after finishing his day job teaching eighth-grade English at Moultrie Middle School in Mount Pleasant, he has gone home to teach courses for an online college.

Stallings is not alone. The Charleston Teacher Alliance, an advocacy group that he also leads in his spare time, surveyed its members in 2015 and asked if they had taken an extra job or source of income in the previous 10 years to make ends meet. Three-quarters of teachers said they had.

"I suspect that number would be about the same if we asked it today, probably even higher," Stallings said. "I know of very few teachers who don't do something (tutoring, for example) to make extra money to supplement their income. I know of no single wage-earners who don't."

The Legislature sets the minimum amount that schools must pay their teachers according to their academic degree and years of classroom experience. The last two across-the-board pay raises signed into law — 2 percent under Gov. Nikki Haley in 2016 and 1 percent under McMaster in 2018 — did not provide enough money to catch up with the resurgent economy, according to the NEA's annual Rankings of the States report and inflation figures calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

During the tight budget years of 2008-09 through 2011-12, legislators froze state required-minimums at 2008 levels. And in 2010 and 2011, the legislature granted districts waivers to stop paying teachers their promised annual "step" increases for years of experience.

Since teacher salaries are set according to their years of experience, today's average salary likely reflects the throng of young teachers who quit the profession within their first five years, as well as a mass exodus of veteran teachers who quit working this year after the state discontinued its popular Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive.

Teacher salaries have become a talking point in the Nov. 6 governor's race. Republican incumbent Gov. Henry McMaster has touted the fact that he signed a 1 percent raise into law in time for the current school year. Democratic candidate James Smith has proposed a 5 percent raise, if elected.

Republican Superintendent Molly Spearman, who is running for re-election without a Democratic opponent, already has requested a 5 percent raise for teachers in the 2019-20 budget.

State lawmakers set minimum salaries, but local school districts with robust tax bases can supplement those salaries with their own funds. This has led to inequality in pay among teachers in rich and poor districts.

This year, for example, Charleston County Schools offered a starting salary of $38,258. Many rural districts can only afford to pay their teachers the state-mandated minimum of $32,000.

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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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