COLUMBIA — What started as a Facebook group where teachers could commiserate and support each other through difficult times has mobilized into a strident advocacy force that is pushing back hard against a massive proposal for reforming education in South Carolina.

In less than a year, SC for Ed has grown to more than 20,000 members, an increasingly vocal movement that is demanding a seat at the table for teachers as state leaders begin plotting a course for fixing South Carolina's beleaguered school system, which ranks among the nation's worst. 

After House Speaker Jay Lucas called for immediate reforms for the sake of children's futures and the state's economy, several dozen teachers took a personal day and flocked to Columbia to make their voices heard. During the Dec. 12 trip, they warned that a walkout was imminent unless their paychecks reflected the speaker's commitment. They followed that up with a January protest that attracted more than 100 educators. 

"When one person stands up, it makes it easier for the other person and more people to stand up," said Lisa Ellis, veteran teacher and founder of SC for Ed. "It gave them that confidence to say, 'If they’re doing it, I can do it as well."

Since then, the group has taken aim at Lucas' massive reform package — "There isn't a single passable section," they said in a post this month — and blasted a key Senate leader for not taking public comment at an initial meeting on the reform bill. 

SC for Ed logo

The grassroots teachers' advocacy group SC for Ed formed online last summer on Facebook. 

But even as legislators who are pushing for reforms welcome teachers' help, they're concerned that a misunderstanding of the legislative process and a social media echo-chamber could actually work against them. They worry that the group's tendency to lash out at proposals before public debate has even begun could sour some lawmakers on attempting reform and jeopardize prospects for change. 

"Their energy can be helpful," said Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach. "That’s great from where I’m sitting, but it can go the wrong way, and if it takes an ugly turn, the people I was counting on for support (to pass the bill) might not be there."

Calls for an education overhaul have intensified in the wake of The Post and Courier's November series, Minimally Adequate, which laid out how gaping disparities have left students unprepared for college or work after high school, a predicament that threatens the state's economic prosperity. The series also described a worsening shortage of teachers, a growing crisis that has further exacerbated an ever achievement gap that disproportionately hurts rural and poor schools. 

Bipartisan calls for reform followed the series, culminating in Lucas dropping a sprawling, 84-page bill in January that would require new approaches in not only K-12 schools but also technical colleges and universities' teacher-training programs.

Opposition sprouted just days later, however. Teachers already distrustful of legislators' promises first met as a group with freshman Sen. Mike Fanning, a Winnsboro Democrat and former teacher who got them pumped up against the bill. He told them not to "get played" by a proposal designed by bureaucrats and provided a seven-page handout listing what he said teachers should oppose.

Teachers called the bill horrendous. Some threatened to strike if it does pass. Among other things, they worry the bill will erode protections for teachers and result in more testing, even while eliminating four state-standardized tests. 

The backlash has prompted Lucas and others to repeatedly stress that the bill's introduction is the start of a long process — that it won't pass as is — and that they want teachers' help in making the bill something that will truly be transformative for students' future.

It remains to be seen to what degree SC for Ed will make its mark upon the bill. But for a group that seemingly came out of nowhere in the past year, they have definitely become a force to be reckoned with.

Who is SC for Ed?

Miserable and burned out, Ellis decided last May that she was done with the classroom after 17 years.

She was already working on her exit strategy, earning a second master's degree in organizational leadership, when — late on a Sunday night — she hit an emotional wall. She didn't think she had the energy to go back to work the next day in her Richland County School District 1 classroom.

"I thought, 'I wonder if anyone else is feeling this way?'"

So she created a Facebook group and sent an invitation to 40 teacher friends. The response was mind-boggling. By her lunch break the next day, the group had grown to 1,000 people. It continued to grow by a thousand people a day for the next two weeks.

"It was reassuring, but at the same time it was discouraging that so many teachers felt the same way," said Ellis, who now teaches at Blythewood High in Richland School District 2. "Teaching is a very isolating profession. You’re the only adult in the room unless you have the opportunity to get a brief break."

What began as one teacher's search for support over social media quickly morphed into an outlet for teachers statewide to vent their frustrations and, in a way unseen before in South Carolina, collectively demand better pay and more respect. SC for Ed now boasts more than 20,600 members, though it's unclear how many are currently in the classroom. There are more than 50,000 K-12 teachers statewide.

SC for Ed has become a second, unpaid job for Ellis, who spent last summer traveling the state to help launch local chapters. Ten have formed so far, including one specifically for teachers in Dorchester School District 2 (Summerville) and another for the tri-county area.

"They are waking up the sleeping giant, and that's a good thing," said Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, which lobbies for teachers in a state that bans collective bargaining for public employees.

South Carolina teachers previously haven't advocated for themselves en masse out of a combination of fear of losing their jobs and being too engrossed in their classroom to keep up with what politicians are, or aren't, doing that affects their profession.

"The unspoken threat was, 'Keep your mouth shut or you’ll lose your job or be transferred,'" Ellis said.

But SC for Ed formed amid a growing teacher shortage that lessened that threat, as "there's no one to replace us," she said.

Last year, more than 5,300 teachers left K-12 classrooms statewide, while the number of education majors graduating from a South Carolina college continued to decrease to 1,640. Despite increasing reliance on out-of-state, international, and alternatively certified teachers, the 2018-19 school year began with more than 600 teacher vacancies, a nearly 30 percent increase from two years earlier, according to the latest report from the state Center for Educator Recruitment Retention and Advancement.

Education reform a priority

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SC for Ed's mobilization ramped up amid legislators' pledges to make education reform their top priority this year. Descending on the Statehouse with strong voices and a demand to be heard, they quickly grabbed lawmakers' attention. 

In-person meetings with teachers have been productive, Hembree said, but as a group, "it feels like we're dealing with an electronic mob."

"You can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory if you're not careful," he said.

Hembree, the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has repeatedly called in recent years for removing the bureaucratic burdens that hinder teachers' jobs.

And yet, after teachers thought he was excluding their input from a meeting this month, SC for ED put out a call demanding to know why "he would choose to cut out educator voices out of the discussion." One teacher went even further, tweeting that his neck should be "in a noose."

In a tweet back, Hembree noted that the meeting was an organizational gathering and that the committee plans to hold public meetings "all over the state after school hours" to get input from students, parents, teachers and others on the reform package. "Check before overreacting," he wrote.

SC for ED fired back that teachers deserved a seat at the table at every meeting, no matter the size, and that looking out for students' futures was not overreacting. "Dear teachers, would you care to explain to the senator why teachers in SC no longer have time for games?" 

Hembree, a former prosecutor, said social media blasts won't faze his commitment: "I've been threatened bodily harm by people who really do it." And on Wednesday, he urged his fellow senators to likewise stay on task.

For the first time in decades, "all the winds are blowing together" to improve an education system that's fallen to the bottom in the nation, said House Education Chairman Rita Allison, R-Lyman, a former Spartanburg District 5 school board member.

Teachers "have helped push the agenda of needing reform, and that's great ... but misinterpretations and misunderstanding of intent can absolutely work against what we're trying to do," she said.

Lawmakers who have signed on to the legislation insist they recognize having a good teacher in the classroom is paramount to students' success. 

"You've got the momentum. We don't want to do something to mess it up," said Maness, of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, noting she had a "big learning curve" about the legislative process when she left the classroom to lobby for teachers 25 years ago.

Teachers newly paying attention to the General Assembly can't be expected to understand that process, she said.

"There’s a lot of frustration out there right now. The pieces of the puzzle came together. Teachers are finding they can use social media as a sounding board. Sometimes it’s correct. Other times, it’s not," Maness said.

"But there's a right way to use your teacher voice to advocate for students and the profession, and there’s a way to use your teacher voice that will hurt everything."

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.