COLUMBIA — Frustrated teachers from across the state descended Tuesday on the S.C. Statehouse to call for higher pay and more respect, saying they want more input on legislators' plans to overhaul education.
More than 100 current and retired teachers participated in the "Money Matters Lobby Day," organized by the teachers' advocacy group SC for Ed. They met with legislators one day before the first public hearing on House Speaker Jay Lucas' proposal for transforming schools.
Legislative leaders have made overhauling South Carolina’s education system their top priority in the wake of The Post and Courier’s Minimally Adequate series. Last November’s five-part series 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.
Teachers said they want to have more influence on the legislation as it moves through the process. Lucas' massive, 84-page bill requires new approaches in not only K-12 schools but also technical colleges and universities’ teacher-training programs.
"They don't understand what it's like in the classroom," said Saani Perry, an eighth-grade math and science teacher in Fort Mill and board member of the growing grassroots group SC for Ed. "The student population is much different today than 20, or even 10, years ago."
Like many teachers, Perry works a second job to be able to pay his student loan and household bills. For him, that's tutoring five children after school.
The teachers are seeking at least a 10 percent raise. Lucas wants to boost the minimum pay for first-year teachers by $3,000 — to $35,000 raise — next school year and phase in a 10 percent rise for other teachers over a few years. Gov. Henry McMaster put a 5 percent raise in his budget proposal for 2019-20.
"While we’re excited about that, 5 percent won’t do a whole lot to stop the hemorrhaging of teachers leaving," said SC for Ed founder Lisa Ellis.
The teachers' group, which has grown to more than 20,000 members since organizing last summer, also wants legislators to reduce student testing that takes away from class time, allow districts to set their own start date for the school year and guarantee them breaks during the school day. Some elementary teachers complain they aren't even allowed a bathroom break.
While some teachers say they're ready to strike, Perry said there's no timeline for a walkout.
"We want to do things the right way and make them understand," he said.
After meeting with Lucas and other House GOP leaders, Ellis said she's optimistic legislators and teachers will work together to make the bill something that will truly help students.
"We think it's a positive start," Ellis, a Blythewood High teacher, said after her board met with top House leadership. "What we've said since this started is we want a seat at the table. We hope the partnership can continue so we can really make education better in South Carolina."
That may include scheduling another public hearing that accommodates teachers' schedules. Most teachers who came to Columbia on Tuesday took a personal day, which involves arranging for a substitute, and they get only a few of those for the entire school year. Many noted it was impossible for them to attend Wednesday's hearing.
"Better pay won't fix all of our issues but it will make all we do more bearable," said Kendra Pennington, an eighth-grade special education teacher in Horry County.
Beyond low salaries, teachers aren't paid for extra duties and must buy classroom supplies out of their own paycheck. Plus, teachers must pay for the additional training they're required to take. Pennington said she had to quit her second job at a golf course on the weekends so she could take graduate courses.
"We're here fighting for those young teachers who can't be here today," said Nancy Lind of Lexington, who retired last summer after 39 years as a teacher and administrator. "We don't young people to deal with what we dealt with."
While many teachers said their administrators support their advocacy efforts, others said their district is trying to censor them.
Sierra Wald said she was the lone person from her school in Richland District 1 (Columbia) because of a "culture of fear."
"You would think it's a positive thing for us to advocate for our students, but it's almost seen as us being selfish," said Wald, a second-year teacher who drives for Uber and works part-time at her 3-year-old's daycare center.