News conference on education

Gov. Henry McMaster leads a news conference in his office on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, to reiterate the need for big changes to improve public education. Joining him are state Superintendent Molly Spearman (from left), Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree, House Speaker Jay Lucas, House Education Chairwoman Rita Allison and Rep. Raye Felder, the K-12 subcommittee chairwoman. Seanna Adcox/Staff

COLUMBIA — Teachers fighting a proposal for transforming South Carolina's public schools are poised to score major victories on their salaries and certifications required to teach.

A legislative panel reviewing House Speaker Jay Lucas' education reform proposal recommended Wednesday striking two provisions that have been drawing intense backlash from teacher advocacy groups. The legislators could vote on the changes as early as Thursday.

Meanwhile, some teachers could see up to a 10.6 percent pay raise next school year, depending on how many years they've taught and their college degree. The teachers' group SC for Ed has called for hikes of at least 10 percent. 

The House's budget-writing committee recommends spending $159 million to increase teacher salaries next school year. That would cover bringing the minimum pay for starting teachers to $35,000 a year — up by $3,000. The minimum for teachers who've been in the classroom fewer than five years would rise between 6 percent and 10.6 percent. More-veteran teachers would get 4 percent raises.

GOP leaders say it represents the first of a multi-year phase-in to increase all teachers' salaries by 10 percent. The state has roughly 50,000 teachers. 

As introduced last month, Lucas' bill directed the state Department of Education to recommend, by 2021, a way to replace the state's minimum salary schedule, which pays according to experience and degree, with up to nine promotion levels.  

Teachers assumed that meant their pay would be based on their students' performance, though the bill did not say that. 

Also set to be struck is a section allowing consistently high-performing schools to fill up to a quarter of their teaching slots with people who aren't certified or hold an education degree.

As schools statewide grapple with a growing teacher shortage crisis, the idea was to give top-notch schools the flexibility to hire experts to teach in their field, even if they don't have a teaching certification. Some 600 teaching spots were vacant when the school year started in August. 

But teachers argued the idea seems to negate the goal of putting a highly qualified teacher in every classroom.

"If accountability is important, have we not just thwarted that?" wrote the group SC for Ed in its official response to legislators. "These ideas are antithetical to producing a well-educated child."        

The recommended changes come a week after teachers laid out their concerns to the panel over five hours of testimony.

Some teachers have even threatened to strike if the bill passes.

In yet another attempt to tamp down the backlash, Gov. Henry McMaster, state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman and legislative leaders pushing for reforms held a joint news conference earlier Wednesday to assure teachers they were heard.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, said he understands the concerns. 

"This is a heavy lift ... because the status quo is hard to move. Habits are ingrained top to bottom," he said. "People get nervous about change." 

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Specifically to teachers opposing the bill, he added, "Don't panic. We've got a lot of feedback, passion and concern. I don't want people to have unnecessary fear."

It's a sentiment he and other legislators have echoed repeatedly since Lucas filed the bill less than a month ago. Days later, more than 100 teachers descended on the Statehouse to oppose the bill and fight for more money and greater respect.

Lucas stressed his bill represents only part of the effort to overhaul public schools. Legislators insist they will revamp the state's complicated, piecemeal funding formulas, but not until next year. State economic experts have been tasked with coming up with recommendations by mid-May. 

Calls for improving South Carolina's public schools intensified following The Post and Courier's "Minimally Adequate" series in November, which laid out how gaping disparities have left thousands of students unprepared for college or modern jobs.

A new provision set to be added to Lucas' bill is a "Teachers' Bill of Rights," which teachers have requested. The bill already has a Student Bill of Rights that promises to "put their success first."

The listed rights for teachers include a "competitive salary," getting paid for assigned duties outside the classroom, being free of “unnecessary paperwork,” and having the support of school and district leaders on student discipline decisions.

GOP leaders made clear Wednesday they're not backing away from an overhaul. 

Not doing so is "dangerous" to the state's prosperity, McMaster said. 

"It is time in South Carolina to take big steps in education," he said. "This is the year. This session is the time we're going to make great strides." 

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.