GAFFNEY — Improving public schools in South Carolina will require much better pay for teachers, smaller class sizes and social workers for traumatized children, educators told a Senate panel Monday that's taking testimony across the state on a bill overhauling education.
"I totally get why teachers all over this country are striking," said Elizabeth Connelly, who's been teaching since 1995. "I'm begging you to get dialed in to what teachers are really saying. We need help."
Saying many teachers get no break whatsoever during the day, Connelly asked teachers attending the hearing at Gaffney High School to raise their hands if they restrict their liquids during the day because they can't get to a bathroom. Hands across the auditorium shot up.
"Do you get to leave the Senate floor when you have to use the restroom?" she asked the senators.
The hearing marked the third of four evening public hearings the panel has scheduled to give people opportunity to weigh in on the massive attempt at transforming an education system that's fallen to the bottom of the nation, as laid out in The Post and Courier's Minimally Adequate series last November.
Two dozen people testified at the alma mater of Senate President Harvey Peeler, who noted that his parents, his wife and all three of their children also graduated from Gaffney High. The final public hearing is set for 6 p.m. Thursday at Georgetown High.
But even the after-hours meetings don't give many teachers a chance to speak, as they're working second or third jobs, said Terrell Brown, an elementary school teacher in Greenville County. He urged the senators to visit schools and ask teachers directly about their jobs.
"You all need to come to our schools. It's rough," he said.
Those who testified said the bill initiated by House Speaker Jay Lucas doesn't fix the growing teacher shortage crisis or address the baggage students bring to school.
The House voted 113-4 earlier this month on the bill that requires new approaches not only in the K-12 system, but also technical colleges and universities. Provisions are aimed at ensuring students can read on grade level by the end of third grade — bolstering a law passed five years ago — better connecting high school offerings with the modern work world, and improving colleges’ teacher-training programs.
A provision added on the House floor does require teachers to get 30 minutes duty-free daily.
Many of those testifying Monday said mental health counselors are imperative to students being able to concentrate and learn.
"You can't address education reform and ignore the elephant in every classroom, and that's mental health," said Heather Lother, a director at United Way of the Piedmont. "We're asking teachers to scale Mount Everest with one hand tied behind their back. We just can't do it."
Childhood trauma takes many forms, she said, including watching domestic violence in their homes, dealing with their parents' drug abuse, or coping with divorced parents.
The state budget proposal advanced earlier this month by the House includes $2.2 million to hire 90 additional mental health counselors that can travel to schools as needed to help students cope with issues and stem violence.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree said putting mental health counselors in schools is at least as important to school safety as an armed law enforcement officer.
"Our goal is to get a mental health counselor in every school in South Carolina," Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, said after the hearing.
But that will be decided as part of the budget process, not the policy bill, he said.
The House's budget plan also covers at least a 4 percent raise for all teachers, while those in the classroom fewer than five years would see up to a 10 percent hike.
Teacher advocacy groups want a 10 percent, across-the-board raise for all teachers next school year. Hembree and Lucas have repeatedly advocated for 10 percent over several years.
"The expectations do not meet the salary. I love my job, but I am burning out, and my colleagues are as well," said Alison Tracy-McHenry, a special education teacher in Rock Hill. "Our pay is despicable."
Anderson eighth-grade teacher Leah Foster, a 29-year veteran, said class sizes in the elementary grades must be smaller, and struggling readers need more intervention in the early years.
"I'm still floored by the number of kids I get who can't read. Every year I yell, 'How do these kids get here?' she said. "Have you ever been in a first-grade classroom with 30 kids, and you're the only adult? ... You're outnumbered 30-to-one. Are you kidding me?
The House GOP majority rejected proposals to cap class sizes during floor debates on both the education bill and the budget.
The Senate panel is reviewing the massive bill section-by-section and has already removed large chunks. It isn't expected to advance its version to the full Senate Education Committee until next month.
Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, said it's important to get this bill right.
"We are about to set the parameters for education for the next 30 to 40 years," said the state's longest-serving legislator, first elected to the House in 1974. "What we do will define how far and how fast we go in education in this state."