SC public school teachers, state workers demand better pay at State House rally

Elementary school teacher Kayla Lawson lives a reality not uncommon for many S.C. public school teachers.

Outside of her full-time teaching job in Newberry County, the 24-year-old relies on four other jobs to make ends meet.

"When I started teaching, I was living with my parents. I knew if I wanted to live on my own, I was going to have to make more money," Lawson said in front of the S.C. State House on Saturday, where more than 100 teachers and state workers gathered to demand better pay. "I'm here not only to help promote funding for our kids, but also to help us."

S.C. public school teachers and state workers rallied Saturday at the State House, calling for state lawmakers to adopt a state budget that includes higher pay for state workers and increased funding for education.

Wearing blue and red T-shirts — colors sported by teachers nationally to protest low wages and resources — state workers raised hand-drawn signs that said, "Why should my students respect me when the government doesn't?" and "We are worth more money."

Advocates called on S.C. lawmakers to provide more money to school districts and state agencies, where some officials struggle to fill jobs and retain experienced workers.

They also told their colleagues to vote in the June 12 primary and in the November general election.

"We must elect a governor and members of the General Assembly who care about our state employees (and) our public schools," said Kathy Maness, head of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

South Carolina's average teacher pay — $48,769 — falls below the Southeastern average, and new teachers earn about $30,100.

Overall, nearly 40,000 full-time state workers earn $50,000 or less.

A 2016 state-funded study found state workers' pay lags 15 percent behind that of other states and 18 percent behind the private sector.

"Our ... legislators need to remember the simple message that thousands of my own students carry away from my classroom over the years," said Bernadette Hampton, head of the S.C. Education Association, which organized Saturday's event with the S.C. State Employees Association.

"If you know better, do better," she said.

Specifically, Hampton asked that S.C. House and Senate budget negotiators add to the state's budget — which takes effect July 1 — at least a 1 percent teacher pay raise and more money to bump up teachers' starting pay to $32,000, a proposal both chambers added to their versions of the budget.

"As a state, we know that we need to do better things around teacher pay, around social and emotional support, around safety," said Patrick Kelly, 37, who teaches AP U.S. history at Blythewood High School. "But talk’s not enough, because kids only get one chance at a K-12 education."

What's next?

Advocates for state workers said Saturday a letter will be sent to Gov. Henry McMaster and the Legislature's budget chairmen — Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson — requesting a summit on pay and education funding.

"The crisis has to be addressed," said Carlton Washington, head of the S.C. State Employees Association. "Employees will be watching how this is handled. If state employees and teachers are blown off, it's just going to make them angry."

Washington said state workers have long been ignored, pointing to the lack of legislative action that followed the 2016 study.

"It's shameful that we have a pay study from 2016, primarily orchestrated by state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, that for two years lawmakers have done nothing with," he said.

Washington said now is the time for state leaders to have an open and honest dialogue about pay. State workers and S.C. teachers said Saturday they are committed to being a part of that conversation.

“If I don’t stand up for my own profession," said 23-year-old middle school teacher Elizabeth Durham, "nobody’s going to stand up for me."

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter