COLUMBIA — House Speaker Jay Lucas opened discussion Wednesday on his bill aimed at transforming public education in South Carolina by seeking input, a move that appeared to be an attempt to calm fears and prevent concerns from derailing the effort before it starts.
"It's not perfect, and we knew it wasn't perfect when we filed it. This is a bill that requires your input," Lucas, R-Hartsville, told a House panel at the bill's first public hearing Wednesday. "More importantly, it needs the input of teachers and students and people who work in the system."
Lucas' 84-page bill represents the start of the largest legislative effort to overhaul education in 35 years. It comes in the wake of The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series last November, which laid out how gaping disparities have made South Carolina’s public school system one of the nation’s worst and left thousands of students unprepared for college or work after high school.
The overhaul was proposed as teachers are newly finding their collective voice and demanding change.
The hearing came one day after more than 100 teachers descended on the Statehouse to seek better pay and greater respect during a lobby day organized by the grassroots group SC for Ed. Many of them derided the bill and criticized Lucas for not involving teachers in its creation.
The House panel has already scheduled two additional hearings on Feb. 5 and Feb. 12, with the latter starting at 5 p.m. so educators, students and parents can attend after the school day ends. A vote on whether to advance the bill to the full House Education Committee could occur after next month's meetings.
Change is coming, Lucas said, as no one should accept South Carolina's abysmal education rankings and the more than 64,000 jobs unfilled statewide because "our students don't have the technical expertise to fill them."
Lucas said the legislation represents "a good starting point" that will change as it goes through the Legislature.
Educators, community leaders and teacher representatives began detailing their concerns before the House panel Wednesday.
Teachers are seeking at least a 10 percent pay raise.
Lucas' bill does include a near 10 percent increase in the minimum pay for first-year teachers next school year. That would ensure no teacher makes less than $35,000 — $3,000 more than starting teachers' minimum salary this year.
While it is not in the legislation, Lucas wants to phase in a 10 percent salary increase for other teachers over a two- to three-year period. Those specifics will be part of the upcoming budget debate. Gov. Henry McMaster put a 5 percent across-the-board raise in his budget proposal.
Teachers oppose a provision to eventually revamp how they're paid.
Currently, they're paid according to their college degree and years of experience, and the state sets the minimum for each step. The bill asks the state Department of Education to recommend by July 2021 how to replace the state's teacher salary schedule with up to nine promotion levels that include salary ranges in each level.
Teachers fear that lawmakers will base promotions solely on their students' performance. But the bill doesn't say that.
Rather, its passage would start conversations on what could be used to determine teacher pay hikes — possibly a combination of their experience, student performance and performing additional duties.
"We celebrate that this bill wants to increase teacher salaries," said Craig King with the Palmetto State Teachers Association, which urges caution on the idea of moving away from the salary schedule. "If not done carefully, it could appear teachers won't be getting an increase."
The proposal would require districts of fewer than 1,000 students to consolidate by summer 2022. That affects seven school districts in counties with multiple districts. Other districts that post failing scores for several consecutive years would have to merge with a neighbor.
Fay Sprouse, superintendent of Greenwood District 51 in Ware Shoals, urged legislators to either amend the bill to get rid of the arbitrary number of students, redraw district lines so that their population surpasses 1,000 students or simply exempt the district from the requirement.
In the Upstate town south of Greenville, the small district has 965 students in three schools.
Merging the district with another would irrevocably harm the former mill town and take away its identity, said Ware Shoals Mayor Bruce Holland and the Rev. James Davis, who drives a bus for the schools.
"The success of our schools and our town are intertwined," Holland said.
Such arguments help explain why legislators have for years avoided forcing districts to consolidate. There are 81 districts in 46 counties.
"While you are experiencing great success, many of those communities are drying up and not growing, and students aren’t getting what they should be able to get," House Education Chairwoman Rita Allison told the Ware Shoals advocates. "We thank you for showing what can be done."