Politics & Government

As SC teacher shortage looms, this fix could keep them in the classroom, lawmaker says

South Carolina lawmakers have filed proposals to raise teacher salaries and let retired teachers remain in the classroom amid the state’s ongoing teacher shortage.
South Carolina lawmakers have filed proposals to raise teacher salaries and let retired teachers remain in the classroom amid the state’s ongoing teacher shortage.

Irmo’s Carol Jackson wants to remain in her Dutch Fork High School classroom after 41 years of teaching.

“I’m a young 62,” said Jackson, who teaches literature and teacher cadets. “I have a number of years in me left with a good bit of energy, a lot of passion, and I want to share and give that to my students in my district.”

Jackson may have to direct that passion and energy elsewhere. This summer, a popular state program that allows teachers to continue working past retirement age will end, potentially forcing Jackson and other S.C. teachers out of the classroom.

The program – called the Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive, or TERI – will end June 30, affecting the jobs of about 7,500 retirement-aged state employees, including about 4,000 of them teachers.

When the program ends, those teachers can remain in the classroom. However, few likely will. That’s because, except in some cases, state law will bar working retirees from collecting retirement benefits after they earn $10,000 in income from their state jobs.

That proposition does not appeal to Jackson.

“I’m not ready to leave, but I also don’t want the job for less pay,” she said.

State lawmakers say eliminating that $10,000 income cap is one way to keep thousands of teachers like Jackson in the classroom, a solution needed to curb the state’s continued teacher shortage, they say.

This month, state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, introduced a bill that would would exempt certified teachers from the $10,000 earnings cap, allowing them to continue teaching while drawing their retirement pay.

Fanning’s bill is one of several proposals aimed at helping teachers, and one that will buy lawmakers more time to figure out how to attract more people into the teaching profession, he said.

Other legislative proposals have the same goal. While the S.C. Department of Education wants to raise teacher pay by 2 percent, one lawmaker is pushing for as much as a 15 percent hike.

Last school year, about 6,500 teachers did not return to the same teaching positions for the 2016-17 school year. Now that the TERI program is winding down, thousands more could leave by the end of the 2017-18 school year. At the same time, not enough college students are pursuing teaching careers.

“I fully support a teacher being able to retire and collect the money they put in,” said Fanning, a former teacher. “We are in a massive teacher shortage in South Carolina and across the country. ... We are losing a wealth of experience and don’t even have the numbers to hire and replace.”

When school districts are unable to fill teaching positions, many have brought in certified teachers from other countries or increased classroom sizes. Those short-term fixes are not going to solve the teacher shortage, educators say.

“We’ve got to get more people into education,” said Kathy Maness, head of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. “While we’re not doing that right now, we need to do whatever we can do to have a certified, qualified teacher in our classrooms.”

Recruiting and keeping the best

Making teachers’ salaries competitive with those across the southeast will keep more qualified teachers in the Palmetto State, educators say.

The 2018-19 budget requests for the state’s Education Department include an across-the-board 2 percent raise to teachers’ salaries and a raise to the starting salary for first-year teachers to $32,000 from $29,900. The proposals would cost the state about $45 million.

State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said he wants lawmakers to consider a 15 percent increase to teachers’ salaries. That steep an increase could be a tough sell as lawmakers fight over limited extra money. Giving all state employees a 2 percent raise would cost the state about $38 million.

The teacher shortage underscores a need for lawmakers to do something to make teaching more attractive, said Jackson, the veteran educator.

“If we don’t show value in this profession, by what we do for teachers throughout their career, we will never recruit the best and brightest into this profession, nor we will be able to keep them there,” she said.

And, she added, if lawmakers want a glimpse of what teachers need: “Come spend a day with me in the classroom.”

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter

SC bills aimed at fixing teacher shortage

Proposals aimed at curbing the state’s teacher shortage, and helping some part-time state employees, await lawmakers when they return to work in January. The bills could:

▪  Give teachers a big raise: A House bill would create a committee to examine whether to raise teacher salaries by 15 percent

▪  Let retired teachers keep working: A Senate bill would eliminate the $10,000 earnings limitation for retired teachers who want to come back to the classroom

▪  Let some part-time workers opt out of the state retirement system: A Senate bill would give some part-time district employees, such as cafeteria workers, the option not to participate in the state’s retirement system, saving them money in their paychecks.