Politics & Government

Will SC teachers walk out? Why some worry that would backfire with Legislature

Teachers and legislators working together on bill

A coalition of South Carolina Teachers met with legislators to discuss a Teacher Bill of Rights that would address key issues including pay raises and funding schools.
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A coalition of South Carolina Teachers met with legislators to discuss a Teacher Bill of Rights that would address key issues including pay raises and funding schools.

A growing number of S.C. teachers warn they will walk off the job unless legislators raise their pay and pass reforms removing burdens in the classroom in the General Assembly session that starts Tuesday.

But another bloc of teachers worries the threat of a walkout could torpedo efforts to pass K-12 reforms at the State House.

“In my two decades in the classroom, there has never been a legislative session where, going into it, teachers are as engaged as they are now,” said River Bluff High School teacher Mike Burgess. “(But) it would be premature to immediately go straight to a walkout.”

However, a once-small group of teachers — rapidly emerging as a power — is threatening a walkout and finding support.

In a conference call last week, representatives of SCforED spoke with teachers who have gone on strike elsewhere, said Lisa Ellis, founder of the teachers’ group. For example, West Virginia teachers walked out last year for almost two weeks and, afterward, were given a 5 percent raise.

The grassroots group also recently took to Twitter, sharing news articles, photos and videos about teacher strikes in Los Angeles.

Via Twitter and through its closed Facebook group with 19,000-plus members, SCforED also has asked teachers to wear red to the Governor’s Mansion on Wednesday, hours after Gov. Henry McMaster takes the oath of office for a four-year term. The group also has proclaimed Jan. 29 as “Lobby Day,” calling on teachers to leave work and lobby legislators.

SCforED is calling for 20 percent raises for teachers, far more than the 5 percent the group previously supported. A 5 percent raise also has been endorsed by the state Education Department and two other teachers’ groups — the Palmetto State Teachers Association and S.C. Education Association.

“We recognize we’re not policymakers,” SCforED’s Ellis said. “We’re not people who know the ins and outs (of the Legislature). We’re teachers. But, we are of the mindset that ... what’s worked in the past is not working, so we need to do something that catches peoples’ attention.”

Education reform is set to be the top priority for the state’s 170 legislators in this year’s session.

Powerful House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, is drafting a K-12 reform plan that will address school funding and policy. Meanwhile, Republican McMaster is planning to make education a focus of his State of the State address and executive budget, both this month.

At the State House, lawmakers and some education advocates have advised teachers to let the legislative process play itself out before walking out.

“I understand the frustration from teachers,” said Kathy Maness, a former teacher who now is the head of the Palmetto State Teachers’ group. “But, before there’s a walkout, teachers need to make sure they make those personal contacts. Make calls. Write letters. Invite House and Senate members to their classroom. (The first contact) should not be on the State House steps or the lobby of the General Assembly.”

The state Education Department says it wants teachers involved in the reform efforts.

“Obviously, we want teachers in the classroom teaching the students,” said Education Department spokesman Ryan Brown. “They want that as well. Rather than act in a defiant way, we’d like teachers to act in an advocacy role, along with us.”

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, agrees.

“What I’ve found up here (in Columbia) is that threats — and taking that type of adversarial approach — do not lead to the results that you want to get in the end,” he said. “We need as many well-intentioned people at the table to address them.”

But at least one lawmaker said she would support teachers walking out, even standing with them on the State House steps.

“We’ve got to take off the rose-colored glasses and be real here,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. “I don’t see us doing anything without force being applied.”

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.