Statehouse rally for workers (copy) (copy)

Teachers and state employees hold up copies of letters to GOP leaders demanding better pay during a rally at the Statehouse in May. 

This week, South Carolina lawmakers headed to Columbia for the start of the 2019-20 legislative session. With them goes a mandate: raise teacher pay or bust.

There are two primary reasons that teacher pay and public education are on our leaders’ minds: The Post and Courier’s incredible reporting in November’s “Minimally Adequate” series, which shed a necessary light on South Carolina’s perpetually underfunded and inequitable public education system, and the increasingly organized voice of South Carolina’s teachers.

What our teachers are saying is pretty simple if we listen. Lack of autonomy and lower than average pay are driving teachers to leave the profession in droves. Within a decade, South Carolina is expected to be short some 6,000 teachers, with particular difficulty filling STEM, social studies and special education positions. During the 2016-17 school year alone, South Carolina lost 5,000 teachers. We are in the midst, not the makings, of a crisis.

It doesn’t help that South Carolina’s minimum salaries for teachers rank behind those in North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama at all levels of experience and education. A 10-year veteran teacher with a master’s degree, for example, could move to Alabama and earn nearly $10,000 more annually. Yes, Alabama.

The landscape gets bleaker when one considers that significantly fewer college graduates plan to go into teaching. During the 2017-18 academic year, 1,779 students completed a South Carolina teacher education program. Five years earlier the number was 2,447 – a 27 percent decrease.

We’ve fared better in Greenville County, due in large part to Greenville County Schools’ forward-thinking leadership. The district has committed to the recruitment, retention and development of high quality teachers in its 2018-23 strategic plan, and pays its teachers above the state minimums. Our teacher turnover rate — 13th lowest of the state’s 82 districts at 9 percent — reflects that commitment.

Even so, Greenville County’s salaries are less competitive than those in nearby markets like Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wake County, North Carolina.

As the cost of living in Greenville County rose, our teachers’ salaries have not kept pace. The Affordable Housing Analysis recently presented to Greenville County Council found that affordability challenges extend into the middle of the income ladder, specifically citing teachers as an adversely affected group.

The problem is substantial enough that school districts alone can’t tackle it. That’s why our top priority at Public Education Partners is rallying our community to address teacher recruitment, retention and morale. We’re not alone.

Aligned groups around the state with vested interests in positive public education outcomes are organizing, and both the Greenville and South Carolina chambers of commerce have included teacher pay in their lists of legislative priorities for the 2019-20 session. Leaders on both sides of the aisle and from both chambers have assured us that teacher pay will be a top priority at the Statehouse, and Gov. Henry McMaster has pledged to prioritize education in his executive budget.

And let’s not forget South Carolina’s 53,000 teachers. On top of their staggering workloads, they have made time for trips to the Statehouse to advocate for higher pay — specifically a raise to bring their salaries in line with or exceed the southeastern average — a Teachers’ Bill of Rights, and a handful of other legislation that would provide for more flexibility in their classrooms. They have become a force on social media, with grassroots group SC for Ed growing to nearly 20,000 members.

Not since the 1980s under then-Gov. Richard Riley’s leadership have the conditions been so ripe for tackling the persistent problems that plague our public education system. It doesn’t hurt that the state has a nearly $1 billion surplus to work with this year. Of that money, $458 million in recurring funds could be used to cover part or all of the cost of a pay raise for teachers.

The gang’s all here — teachers, legislators, the governor, the business community, statewide advocacy groups — and the money is in the bank. What we need now is visible and persistent public support. That means you.

Lindsey Jacobs is policy and advocacy director with Public Education Partners.