COLUMBIA — What was billed as the major piece of legislation aimed at transforming South Carolina's public schools is officially dead for the year, with senators saying it's impossible to get a vote in the Senate in the next two weeks.
The declaration came after the Senate's Education Committee adopted recommendations from a panel that's been reviewing the legislation section by section since February. Those changes chopped off much of the original bill.
While the full committee will consider additional changes next week, Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree said Wednesday the best he can hope for is the bill advances to the Senate floor before the session ends in just eight legislative days, on May 9.
"That's about as far as we can take it this year," said Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, pledging to push the measure next year.
Technically, this is the first of a two-year session in which legislation is considered, so debate can pick up in January wherever it leaves off. But that pushes the effort into a year when every legislator is up for re-election, making consensus even more difficult.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who has urged legislators repeatedly to get an education package done, reiterated that this year offers the best chance for improving a system that's fallen among the nation's bottom.
“Showing the world that South Carolina is committed to remaining competitive on the global stage simply can’t wait until next year," his spokesman, Brian Symmes, said Wednesday.
"Gov. McMaster, once again, encourages the General Assembly to roll up their sleeves and send him education reform this calendar year," Symmes added.
The year had begun with a lot of optimism for the first major revamp in decades. In the wake of The Post and Courier's "Minimally Adequate" series published in November, which laid out how the system fails to graduate students prepared for either college or the modern workforce, McMaster and legislative leaders in both chambers from both parties pledged to make improving K-12 schools their top job this year.
But the momentum began to unravel soon after House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, introduced a massive 84-page bill in January that required changes in not only K-12 schools but also technical colleges and universities.
Teachers, advocating for themselves through the social media group SC for Ed, complained they weren't included in its drafting and demanded the process slow down, with some calling for the bill to be scrapped altogether.
Still, the House voted overwhelmingly on March 6 to approve the bill, with some changes designed to help teachers, including guaranteeing 30 minutes duty-free daily and giving a property tax break to teachers working in the poorest districts.
The Senate then did what teachers asked — and what the Senate, which prides itself on being the "deliberative body," does. It slowed things down.
Hembree's subcommittee reviewed the bill over 15 meetings, which included four after-hours hearings held across the state so teachers could testify after work.
Sen. Mike Fanning, who urged teachers arriving for a "Money Matters" lobby day in January to oppose the bill then newly filed, rejoiced that it's effectively dead for the year.
"Unequivocally, that's a good thing," said the Winnsboro Democrat.
Part of the reason it has no chance in the limited time left is because Fanning has vowed to block the bill. He has more than 80 amendments ready to go for a potential filibuster.
While Fanning praised Hembree's subcommittee for its work, and for taking out many controversial provisions such as the creation of a new advisory committee, he contends there's too much bureaucracy left in the bill and not nearly enough of what's needed to keep teachers from fleeing the profession — chiefly reducing class sizes and a much bigger pay raise.
Teachers' salaries will increase next school year, though. Both the House and Senate budget plans spend $159 million in the fiscal year starting July 1 to provide teachers with less than five years of experience up to a 10 percent raise and guarantee at least 4 percent for all other teachers.
Representatives for teacher advocacy groups called those boosts a good starting point that won't stop the exodus.
Teachers are grateful for the the biggest single-year boost in decades, but "if you're thinking about leaving, you're probably still looking," said Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association.
SC for Ed founder Lisa Ellis said the bill's stalling is exactly what her group wanted, with the expectation that legislators will reach out to teachers over the off-session to craft a replacement that "reaches the goals of everybody."
Whether that will happen is yet to be seen. As for concerns the momentum is gone, Ellis said she believes it will only increase.
"If nothing else, this year has given teachers more courage to stand up for themselves, and that momentum will only keep moving forward," said Ellis, whose group started over Facebook last summer has grown to more than 24,000 members.
Despite the major bill stalling, pieces of it could still pass as part of the budget which is still being finalized. Senators inserted a provision to eliminate three end-of-year state-standardized tests to help ease concerns over incessant testing. They also provided $16 million to help the state's tiniest districts consolidate with a neighbor.