COLUMBIA — Hundreds of teachers and state employees chanted, "We want a raise and we want it now," at the Statehouse on Saturday as they called on government leaders to make workers a priority for the sake of South Carolina's future.
Government services are failing because state agencies cannot attract and keep workers, organizers said in a letter to Republican legislators in charge of the state budget and GOP Gov. Henry McMaster, which attendees held in the air as they chanted.
Speakers urged employees to make their voices heard by voting in next month's primaries and the November election, which includes races for governor and state House seats.
"What can we do? Vote. We've got to vote," said Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. "Elect a governor and General Assembly who care about our state employees and public schools."
Beyond paying employees more, that means reducing teachers' required paperwork and student testing, she said to perhaps the loudest applause of the event.
"I want to teach, not test. I feel like I'm a professional tester instead of a teacher," said Kizzy Alston, a Lexington 2 teacher who's taught for 15 years.
What used to be a teacher shortage has turned into a crisis, and it will only get worse because elected leaders are "telling future generations teaching is not worthwhile," Maness said.
About 50,000 teachers are in South Carolina's public schools. Last school year, nearly 5,000 teachers left the profession, while just 1,700 new teachers graduated from the state's colleges, according to the Center for Education Recruitment, Retention and Advancement.
Teachers tend to be too busy to get involved in politics or even keep up with what legislators are doing that affect their jobs. But "it's time to come out from the closed door of your classroom" and "be vocal and be visible," said Julie Marshall, a Winthrop University professor and Rock Hill middle school teacher.
Salaries are so abysmal, many teachers must work other jobs, she said.
When her students start teaching and look at their paychecks, minus their student loan bills, they question, "How can we make a difference in other people's lives when we can't take care of ourselves?" Marshall said.
South Carolina's average starting pay for teachers is third-worst nationwide at $33,057 a year, according to the National Education Association.
Kayla Lawson, a Newberry County special education teacher, said she also works as a bus aide and colorguard instructor so she can pay her bills.
While she'd love to teach "as long as I'm breathing," the state's lack of support is disheartening, said Lawson, a 2016 graduate who held a sign that read: "I went to college for four years and my paycheck is $1,600 per month."
Veronica Primus, a Richland 1 reading coach who's been teaching 44 years, said the 1 percent or 2 percent raise for teachers that legislators are considering is an insult.
"Teaching is a work of the heart," she said. The state's leaders "kill that spirit" by undervaluing and under-appreciating teachers, she said.
None of the rally speakers called for a state employee or teacher walkout, like what's happened in North Carolina, West Virginia and other states. The event was organized by groups that advocate for teachers and state employees.
Legislators haven't approved pay raises for all state agency employees since 2016. Most of the state's roughly 60,000 workers would go without a raise for another year under the budget plan still being finalized, though it does include increases for some law enforcement officers.
Brian Barnes, a state employee for nearly 28 years, said he also runs two fireworks stands in Lexington during the holidays to supplement his pay.
Pay "hasn't kept pace with the cost of living, and every time (legislators) give us a bone, they take it away" with higher health care and retirement benefit costs, said Barnes, who works in the air quality division of the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
In the last decade, legislators have given cost-of-living raises across state government four times, ranging between 1 percent in 2008 and 3.25 percent in 2016. Most employees received a one-time, $800 bonus in 2015.