Education subcommittee hearing

A packed room of teachers, students and education advocates testified to a S.C. House subcommittee on Tuesday, Feb. 12, about complaints they have with a sweeping education reform proposal working its way through the Legislature. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — Hundreds of teachers, parents, students and education advocates flooded the Statehouse on Tuesday to give lawmakers an earful about a proposed overhaul of the state's school system in a legislative hearing that stretched deep into the evening.

Many of the complaints from attendees at the meeting followed a few repeated themes, including soliciting more input from teachers, reducing what many view as excessive testing requirements and upping a proposed increase in teacher pay.

"What teachers are looking for more than anything is to be treated as professionals," said Marlene Sipes, a teacher from Richland County School District One, voicing a sentiment that was echoed many times over the ensuing hours.

The meeting, held by the House's Education and Public Works K-12 subcommittee, drew so many teachers that lawmakers opened two additional rooms with TVs airing the hearing so that people who could not fit into the main room could watch.

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 achievement gap that disproportionately hurts rural and poor schools.

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.

Bipartisan calls for reform followed the series, culminating in House Speaker Jay 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.

The backlash from teachers 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.

"The bill before us today is a bill in the making," said the education committee chairwoman Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, at the outset of the meeting. "We want to make sure that you have the facts in the bill and that we listen to you."

Still, several teachers griped that they were only being listened to after an initial version of the bill has already been released.

"Unfortunately, I believe a lot of the frustrations you'll hear ... could have been avoided if teacher voices had been better included in the start of this process," said Blythewood High School teacher Patrick Kelly.

Even as legislators who are pushing for reforms welcome teachers’ help, they’re concerned that a misunderstanding of the legislative process and 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.

Some teachers, like Chris Hass, sought to address concerns that they were just complaining by instead offering to email lawmakers new language to replace sections of the bill dealing with programs like Read to Succeed, a 2015 initiative to improve literacy performance.

"Hopefully we're not just coming here to say what's wrong but to say, 'let's be part of the solution,'" Hass said.

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Teachers are seeking at least a 10 percent pay raise. Lucas’ bill would increase the minimum pay for starting teachers by $3,000 next school year, to $35,000.   

A 5 percent pay raise would take teachers’ salaries to the Southeastern average, something state law has technically called for since 1984. But some of the people testifying at the meeting said that would not be enough.

Ridge View High School senior Reilly Alford said a greater pay raise would give his mother, who is a teacher, "the opportunity to put food on the table without missing a payment on rent."

"It will give her the opportunity not to live paycheck to paycheck," Alford said. "But most of all, it will give her the opportunity to live instead of merely surviving."

One of the most common complaints from teachers was that too much of their time is taken up by a bevy of standardized tests and administrative requirements.

"What I’m doing right now is not teaching, I’m testing," said Sherry Blevins, a special education teacher in Richland County School District 2. 

Lucas proposes eliminating four state-standardized tests — one science and two social studies end-of-year tests in elementary school and a U.S. history end-of-course test in high school. Those tests are not required by federal law, allowing the state to scrap them.

But teachers said they fear the bill could replace those with other tests. The proposal requires schools to annually give parents their child’s reading and math levels — sending home two scores and what they mean.

Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.