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Thousands rallied at South Carolina’s Statehouse to protest, march and speak for improved working conditions for teachers. Columbia Police Department/Provided

COLUMBIA — While teachers collectively rallied at the Statehouse for more money and greater respect, legislators stress that many of the indignities and frustrations that drove thousands to leave their classrooms stem from local decisions.

Teachers newly emboldened by the sea of 10,000 red-clad colleagues and supporters on the Statehouse lawn should direct some of that energy to their locally elected school boards, Republican legislators said following Wednesday's unprecedented protest.   

Lawmakers from both parties recognize that stemming the growing teacher shortage will require higher salaries, and House Speaker Jay Lucas reiterated he's working on a multi-year effort to bring South Carolina's average up to the national. But pay is often not what tops teachers' list of grievances.

A lack of support on student discipline decisions, no time to take a lunch or even go to the bathroom, and extra unpaid duties such as staffing sports games and being forced to bake cupcakes. Those are among complaints teachers have made repeatedly in both hearings and individual discussions with legislators throughout this year's debate over improving K-12 schools.

"Most of what I hear are really local issues — local policy decisions that school boards are adopting or just bad leadership. Those sorts of things obviously really weigh on teachers, but I don’t know how to write a law that says, 'Don’t be a bad leader,'" said Rep. Micah Caskey, R-West Columbia, who met with a group of teachers inside the Statehouse after the shouting died down outside. 

'I can hold it'

Testimony of teachers wearing adult diapers to get through the school day prompted the House to insert into its massive education reform bill — which has stalled in the Senate — a requirement that teachers get 30 minutes duty-free daily. Other provisions the House added included a "Teacher Bill of Rights," which essentially says teachers should be treated as the professionals they are and should expect, among other things, "unencumbered planning time" and to be free of unnecessary paperwork. 

Some teachers' signs at Wednesday's rally reflected their frustrations over a lack of free time to eat lunch, plan lessons or take care of basic bodily functions. 

“I can hold it during this whole parade," read a poster held by Bekah Gilliam, a teacher at Spring Hill High in Chapin. 

While teachers at her school get a planning period, they're often packed with mandatory meetings, she said noting she generally gets to run to the bathroom once between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.  

“I guess I’ve trained my body,” Gilliam said.

Rep. Raye Felder, chairwoman of the House K-12 education panel, said she admired teachers' passion Wednesday.

"I don't think it's ever harmful for a group to peacefully get the attention of their government," she said while urging local activism.  

"They need to have a real conversation with their local districts on things like bathroom breaks and planning periods," said the Fort Mill Republican, who's heard similar complaints since participating in a 2017 study on teacher retention. "So much of that can be best handled locally." 

A law would back them up, said Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. 

"They feel like if the General Assembly puts into law they have to have a 30-minute break, they know for sure it would happen," she said. "They need to (lobby) both places, now that they’re finding their voice."

'Where's the disconnect?'

Parts of the overhaul bill removed by a Senate panel included the teacher-requested "Bill of Rights," which senators called a list of worthy goals the Legislature can't guarantee. Senators also debated whether it would do any good to require districts to give teachers a daily break.  

Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree pointed to a 1984 state law intended to provide first- through sixth-grade teachers a duty-free lunch.

"This is where the hammer hit the nail, right here. Do we amend this to say, 'We really mean it this time?'" said Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffey. "We can spend all this time on policy, but ... until we connect the disconnect, we’re spinning our wheels.”

Ultimately, the committee decided to keep the required 30-minute break in the legislation as it covers more grades without a giant loophole that makes existing law easy to ignore. The 35-year-old law says elementary school teachers must get as many lunches to themselves "as may be reasonable" without costing districts more money.

Plus, the new proposal is about more than lunchroom duty, "and it should be," said Sen. Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg.

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"I don’t know how many of you have been to an elementary school lunch of late. They’re a lot of fun for those of us who visit and eat with our kids, but I leave there tired myself," he said.

Testing for the tests

Another huge complaint for teachers is the incessant testing that takes away from time students could be in the classroom learning.

"It's preached to us that testing is the end-all, be-all," said Christina Randall, a middle school band director in Jasper County. "Everything is about testing." 

The House reform bill would eliminate three end-of-year standardized tests — social studies tests in fifth and seventh grades, as well as the eighth-grade science test — plus the end-of-course test in U.S. history in high school. Those are the high-stakes tests the state can eliminate, as the federal government requires the other English, math and science testing in third- through eighth-grades, as well as an 11th grade test.

Much of the constant computerized testing that teachers and parents complain about are required by their school districts. Some principals tack on more, too, as a way to prepare students for the state’s end-of-year bubble tests that essentially label schools good or bad.

At public hearings, many lumped all of those tests together as state-required. Others asked legislators to put a moratorium on local benchmark tests.

But legislators are reluctant to bar districts from taking practice tests.

House Education Chairwoman Rita Allison, R-Lyman, said she encourages districts to test less, and the reduction in state tests will help, "but let's face it, they're autonomous and want local control." 

The founder of the group that organized Wednesday's rally agrees teachers should lobby their local boards for change, too, and she thinks they will.

"Teachers are using their voice and feeling courageous to fix things in their districts," said Lisa Ellis, who started SC for Ed over Facebook last May. "We recognize the issues are not just at the state level, but there are a lot of problems the districts can't begin to react to because they need help from the state first."

Paul Bowers contributed to this report.

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.

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