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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

Public school teachers across South Carolina plan to leave work May 1 and protest in Columbia to demand higher wages, smaller classroom sizes and other changes to their working conditions.

It remains unclear how many teachers will participate and whether any school districts may opt to close schools that day.

The protest was announced over the weekend by SC for Ed, a teacher activist group. The group formed last summer and was inspired partly by teacher walkouts and strikes across the country, which have been widely promoted by the National Education Association labor union.

An organizer with SC for Ed said about 400 teachers had signed up for the protest as of late Monday afternoon.

Robin Bowman, a special education teacher in Florence County School District 1, said she had never done any activism before last year, when she became a Pee Dee area representative with SC for Ed. Now in her 20th year of teaching, she said she plans to join other teachers from her district marching in Columbia by taking a personal leave day.

Bowman said her group has tried to avoid strikes or walkouts. Echoing a theme of teacher testimonies about the crisis-level teacher shortage this year, she said Monday that teachers are leaving the classroom by the thousands every year — and never coming back.

"People may become critical and say, ‘You’re leaving your children in the classroom, how can you do that?’ And my response to that is, 'How can I not do this?' " Bowman said. "This is the most I can do because this is for them. If I don’t, we may soon see a time when there is no one to step into my place for them some day."

Next week's protest will take place on the same day as a similar teacher protest in North Carolina, which already has prompted at least 22 North Carolina school districts to cancel classes for that day. According to Bowman, teachers in her area have already begun reaching out to community groups about providing child care in the event of school closures next week.

The protests come after months of hearings and debate at the Statehouse, where lawmakers and Republican Gov. Henry McMaster had vowed to overhaul the state's education system. The Senate budget would give all teachers at least a 4 percent raise, with the youngest teachers receiving as much as a 10 percent raise as part of an effort to retain young workers.

Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, had pushed for the Senate to approve a 5 percent across-the-board raise for all teachers, but his colleagues overrode him. Asked for a comment Monday on the teacher protests, Hembree wrote in a text message, "I wish the Senate had approved a 5 percent raise for all teachers."

The action might come too late to sway the Legislature this year. The "crossover deadline" for bills to pass either the House or Senate has already passed, and the House and Senate have already approved their versions of the state budget, which will have to be worked out in a conference committee this week.

Neither version of the budget fully funded the Base Student Cost per pupil as required in state law, although legislators have promised to revamp the entire funding formula. Neither version eliminated a budget proviso that lets schools continue to ignore state-mandated caps on classroom sizes. The state has not enforced classroom size limits since 2010, and the number of schools averaging more than 28 students per teacher has nearly doubled since then.

Barring a special session, the last day of the regular legislative session is May 9.

In a prepared statement on the SC for Ed Facebook page Sunday night, the group also called for duty-free lunch breaks for teachers and more social workers and counselors for students. Both versions of the 2019-20 state budget include $2.2 million for mental health counselors to float from school to school as needed.

"For over a decade educators in this state have been continuously pushed aside and neglected as we give our best to the students we love so dearly including: the clothes off our backs, the money in our wallets, the love in our hearts, and the tears in our eyes," the statement read.

The national Red for Ed teacher activist movement has been promoted heavily by the National Education Association, a labor union, but teachers involved with SC for Ed have said their group is separate from the NEA's state-level group, the S.C. Education Association. Teachers involved with Red for Ed nationwide have argued for higher wages, smaller classroom sizes and the curtailment of privately managed charter schools in states across the country.

The NEA has encouraged teachers to pick a day of the week to wear red in solidarity. In South Carolina, teachers have taken to wearing red on Wednesdays at school and any day they are traveling to speak with state lawmakers.

Bowman said she has been in contact with Red for Ed organizers in North Carolina and elsewhere. In a recent video conference call, she said she was particularly encouraged by teachers who participated in the January 2019 teachers' strike in Los Angeles.

"They had as many parents standing with them as they did educators when they walked out. We were particularly moved at that," Bowman said.

The one-day protest is a less drastic action than the strikes and walkouts that took place in states like West Virginia and Oklahoma last year. Those protests caused schools to shut down for weeks as teachers sought and won concessions from their state governments on issues like classroom size and wages.

Patrick Martin, an English teacher at Wando High in Mount Pleasant, said he has been encouraged by the meetings he has had with local lawmakers this year, particularly on the subject of mental health support for students. He'll also be traveling to Columbia on May 1.

"I’ve formed a lot of great relationships with legislators who’ve been responsive to teachers’ needs," Martin said. "I feel like we’ve gotten distracted by easy fixes to our education system, and it’s time to get down to the hard work of figuring out what our students need."

May 1, also known as May Day, carries significance as both the date of an ancient spring festival and as the anniversary of numerous worker actions, strikes and revolutions. It is celebrated as International Workers' Day in numerous countries worldwide.

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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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