COLUMBIA — Republican House leaders are asking South Carolina's 82 teachers of the year for their ideas on improving education as legislators gear up for next year's efforts to revamp the K-12 system.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, of Hartsville, and House Education Chairwoman Rita Allison, of Lyman, will hold five regional discussions this fall with the latest district-level winners. They hope the small, closed-door settings free the teachers to speak openly about their concerns and supply specific suggestions. 

The award-winning teachers, representing a cross-section of K-12 teachers from across grade levels and subjects, have "their fingers on the pulse of their district," Allison told The Post and Courier. "We went straight to the people where the rubber hits the road." 

The invitation sent out Tuesday follows complaints from teachers — led by the grassroots group SC for Ed — over the past six months that their opinions weren't sought before Lucas introduced in January a massive, 84-page attempt to modernize public education.

The complaints, echoed at legislative hearings and a 10,000-person-strong protest on the Statehouse lawn May 1, organized by SC for Ed, helped stall the bill in a year that began with leaders in both chambers, as well as Gov. Henry McMaster, pledging to fix a system that's fallen to among the nation's bottom.

The public commitments followed The Post and Courier's five-day Minimally Adequate series last November which laid out how public schools are failing to prepare students for college or the modern workforce and the economic consequences.

Teacher representatives rejoiced at the bill's stalling, saying they hope to sit down with legislators in the off-session to re-craft it.

Lucas and Allison continue to dispute that they didn't listen to teachers, recounting efforts that began with a House study panel that held hearings statewide in 2015. Teachers packed an hours-long House hearing on the bill in February, filling the largest hearing room in the House's office building plus an overflow room.

It did result in some key changes in what the House passed in February, including requiring teachers to get 30 minutes duty-free daily and removing a much-maligned study on how to pay teachers differently, an attempt to move away from paying them solely on their years in the classroom and level of college degree. But the changes didn't go nearly far enough for the critics.

The measure remains alive for 2020, the second in the two-year session. It stalled in the Senate, where a subcommittee that spent months reviewing it section-by-section removed large chunks that teachers and school boards opposed. Senators have pledged to make it a priority next year, though passage could be even more difficult in a year when every legislator faces re-election.

The Senate will have even more to consider next year, as the House will move ahead with a round-two proposal that could include enhancing 4-year-old kindergarten in poor areas and letting high-schoolers substitute computer coding for their foreign language requirements, as well as incorporating ideas from the group discussions, Lucas said.

Incremental changes won't suffice, said Lucas, noting South Carolina fell to 39th nationally in the annual Kids Count report because the state lags in education. "We remain mired in the mud while our sister states continue to pass us," he said. 

The round-table discussions Lucas and Allison are hosting differ from the four public hearings senators held across the state earlier this year, applauded by teacher groups, at which anyone could step up to the microphone and address senators. But the invitation-only, closed-door style is not new for gathering education input either. Then-Gov. Nikki Haley similarly met with a smaller group of teachers, administrators and legislators in 2013, before announcing her education initiatives in January 2014, much of which legislators passed.

Beyond Lucas and Allison, other legislators can attend the upcoming discussions but only to "listen and learn," Allison said.

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They are tentatively scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Sept. 23-26 and Sept. 30, somewhere in the Aiken area, York County, Pee Dee, Lowcountry and Upstate. The teachers will be asked for their location preferences. 

"We want our conversations to be frank and meaningful, so participation will be limited to you, your fellow Teachers of the Year, the Speaker, and me," reads the letter Allison signed. 

Despite the big education bill stalling in the Senate, some of it was incorporated into the state budget that begins July 1 through tacked-on clauses that represent one-year laws.

Those include the suspension of three end-of-year state-standardized tests — social students in grades five and seven, and the eighth-grade science exam — in response to teachers' and parents' complaints about incessant testing that takes away from actual learning. Those represent all of the state-required tests that can be eliminated for third- through eighth-graders. While many teachers would like to see an end to all high-stakes tests, that's not possible, as others are required by federal law. 

Lucas also reiterated Tuesday his pledge to bring teachers' average salary in South Carolina up to the national average within five years.  

This year's budget provided the biggest single-year infusion to teachers' salaries in 35 years. Legislators allocated $159 million in the budget to raise teachers' pay between 4 percent and 10 percent, with the biggest boosts going to teachers with fewer than five years of experience — those who make the least and are most likely to bail on the profession. The minimum first-year teachers can make in the coming school year is $35,000.

Teacher advocacy groups fought for more, saying that’s not enough to stem the exodus. Legislators will take another step toward the goal next year, Lucas said.

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.