COLUMBIA — Class sizes are growing amid South Carolina's teacher shortage crisis, further overwhelming instructors who are already overburdened and underpaid, teachers told legislators Monday.
Teachers' suggestions for stemming the mass exodus include new caps on teacher-to-student ratios, guaranteed breaks during the workday and freedom from additional, unpaid duties outside the classroom.
In the wake of The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series, legislators are pledging to make education reform a priority next year. That includes finding a way to recruit and keep teachers. South Carolina is annually losing thousands of teachers more than are entering the profession out of college.
That's hitting poor, rural districts particularly hard, as they pay less than districts that can afford to pay more than the state-mandated minimum, and they can't offer much of a social scene.
"Much of student success boils down to the unique relationship between a teacher and student, making the teacher shortage crisis even more devastating," South Carolina's 2018 teacher of the year, Jeff Maxey, told a House panel. "South Carolina's children lose."
Instead of being in a classroom with a veteran, high-quality teacher, students are going for years with a series of first-year teachers, long-term substitutes or foreign teachers students can't even understand, "and then we have the audacity" to wonder why test scores are low, said Maxey, a special education teacher at Starr Elementary in the Anderson 3 district.
Teachers are seeking at least a 5 percent pay boost, which would bring salaries to the Southeastern average. But preventing teachers from bailing involves more than a salary increase, they said.
Vacancies have caused class sizes to balloon to as high as 40 students per class, contributing to student unruliness, Lisa Ellis, founder of advocacy group SC for Ed, told a Senate panel.
The national average was 16 students per class two years ago, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Ellis gave her own assignments as an example. The Blythewood High teacher has classes of 20, 22 and 28 students. Students are learning in the small classes.
"The class of 28 is simply management of behavior and putting out fires every day," she said.
SC for Ed, which has grown to more than 19,000 members, is asking for student-to-teacher ratios of no more than 18-to-1 for kindergarten through second grade; 20-to-1 for third- through eighth-grades and 24-to-1 in high school.
State regulations dating to 1976 set caps at 30-to-1 for kindergarten through third grade and as high as 35-to-1 in middle school.
"That made sense 40 years ago when desks were all in rows and students listened to their teacher," Ellis said.
But even those high caps aren't followed. Legislators have suspended them through the budget every year since the Great Recession.
Teachers also want designated time for lesson planning and grading papers — or even time for something as basic as eating and going to the bathroom.
Elementary school teachers consistently go days with no break at all. They're required to eat with their students, so they may never sit down for lunch themselves, as they do tasks like open every student's milk carton, said Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association.
Other states, including North Carolina, have passed laws guaranteeing teachers a duty-free lunch.
East brought empty cupcake baking cups as her show-and-tell to the Senate panel, which is seeking teachers' input on ways to remove the "clutter" that's bogging teachers down and creating a barrier to actual student learning.
As she laid out the cups on the lectern, she told senators that teachers are being required to do a host of things after school they're not paid for, from baking cupcakes to manning a booth at high school football games.
"There’s no compensation for cupcake baking," East said. "Remember there’s a teacher out there baking cupcakes for their fundraiser at school."