GEORGETOWN — Teachers packed a hearing Thursday evening to hammer home a few key points to a panel of state senators:
Pay teachers more.
Shrink classroom sizes.
Raise property taxes.
Contingents of teachers from Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester and Horry counties traveled to the Georgetown High auditorium Thursday for the fourth and final Senate panel hearing on a proposed education overhaul bill that has earned intense scrutiny from teachers statewide. Many wore red shirts in support of SC for Ed, a statewide teacher activist network that draws inspiration from teacher movements in other states.
Meredith Handren, a middle school teacher from Berkeley County, drew applause from the crowd with a fiery speech.
"My job is to teach. Your job is to fund," she told the senators. "I don't care if you have to raise taxes, dip into your personal funds, or have a bake sale."
In many cases, teachers were repeating demands that they have been making all year long at House and Senate hearings. Both chambers have been revising versions of an omnibus education overhaul bill that was prompted in part by The Post and Courier's 2018 investigation "Minimally Adequate," which detailed longstanding problems from racial segregation to chronic underfunding in South Carolina public schools.
Some lamented that the proposed 10-percent raise for all teachers has been whittled down to a minimum 4-percent raise in the latest House draft of the state budget. Some teachers with little experience could still see as much as a 10-percent raise, while more experienced teachers would receive less of a raise.
The legislature has not followed its own state law to peg teacher wages to the Southeastern regional average, and salaries have not kept pace with inflation since the Great Recession, when many districts were allowed to discontinue their promised annual "step" pay increases for teachers. As a result, South Carolina teachers today are effectively poorer today than their counterparts with the same experience levels were in 2008.
"My daughter wants to be a teacher, and I found myself talking her out of it," said Junius Wright, a teacher at Palmetto Scholars Academy in North Charleston.
At least six speakers during the two-hour forum called on the Senate to repeal or revise Act 388, a 2006 law that exempts homeowners from paying property tax to fund school operations. The law has wrecked state and local education budgets ever since, particularly during recession years when sales taxes failed to make up for the lack of homeowner-occupied property taxes.
John Read, CEO of the Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative, raised a few eyebrows by calling for a 1-percent across-the-board property tax increase — including on homeowner-occupied properties. He estimated such a tax increase could raise around $250 million, which he proposed putting toward further teacher salary increases and universal 4-year-old kindergarten.
Teachers also repeated their call for the state to work on shrinking classroom sizes. State law sets limits on student-to-teacher ratios based on grade level and special education status, but the legislature stopped enforcing those limits in 2010 and has not reinstated them. The number of schools reporting more than 28 students per certified teacher has nearly doubled since.
Cori Shuford, a kindergarten teacher at Carolina Forest Elementary in Horry County, said she just added a 27th student to her classroom this week.
"That mandate for class size has to come from you because districts will push it as far as they can," Shuford said.
Patrick Martin, a Wando High teacher and co-founder of the Safe Schools Project, joined other teachers in urging lawmakers to place mental health counselors in every school.
While several teachers mentioned they had to spend too much time on standardized testing, others worried that the education bill was effectively de-emphasizing social studies by removing a testing requirement without changing the state's heavy emphasis on testing when evaluating schools.
Jenny Leckey, Horry County Schools' 2018-19 Teacher of the Year, confessed at the microphone that she had considered quitting the profession after her fourth year. She said she felt "strangled" and beaten down by an education system that overemphasized standardized testing. She likened the time lost on testing to the time lost on hurricanes and other natural disasters.
The senators in attendance, including Senate Education Committee Chair Larry Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, mostly listened in silence and took notes during the two-hour hearing.
Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, said during closing remarks that he heard running themes in the teachers' comments and promised he was listening.
"Don't give up," Matthews said.