Politics & Government

SC House speaker’s plan to fix schools includes $270 million more for teacher pay

Almost a year after hundreds of S.C. public-school teachers rallied outside the State House calling for higher wages, the General Assembly could be poised to spend $270 million to raise teacher pay.

Lawmakers also could force consolidation of at least eight of the state’s 81 poor, rural school districts that have less than 1,000 students each, eliminate three state-mandated tests and give lottery scholarships to students pursuing certificates to work in industry.

Powerful S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, rolled out his much-anticipated 84-page education reform proposal Thursday, including raising the pay of new teachers to $35,000 a year — up from $32,000 — and spending millions more to raise teacher salaries.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who supports Lucas’ plan, has asked lawmakers to spend nearly $155 million in the state’s budget that starts July 1 to raise teacher pay by 5 percent, an increase supported by the S.C. Department of Education and the state’s two teachers groups.

The bill does not specify how much teacher pay would go up. If all $270 million went for raises, it would translate into a roughly 9 percent increase. However, some of the money will be used to raise starting teacher salaries.

S.C. teachers are happy to see education reform and pay raises on the table this year, said Kathy Maness, head of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. Even more so, Maness added, she is happy to hear McMaster supports reform.

“We haven’t heard that (from a governor) in a very long time,” she said. “I just look forward to working with the General Assembly to help our students and our teachers in public schools in South Carolina.”

State Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, said her Education and Public Works Committee will take up Lucas‘ bill Wednesday in the overwhelmingly Republican House. Any money attached to the bill will be debated by the House’s Ways and Means Committee, which gets the first crack at the state’s budget each year.

“Our committee is very excited about embracing and having a good, clean debate on the bill,” Allison said Thursday. “We are all very excited about moving in the same direction for education.”

Senate Education Committee chairman Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, filed the same bill in the state Senate on Thursday.

“These bills (in the House and Senate) will move together, which is a really neat thing,” Lucas told The State.

After years of urging K-12 reform, state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman, R-Saluda, said in a statement Thursday that she looks forward to working with the Legislature to ensure “students can have the brightest future possible.”

‘This is more important than politics’

Lawmakers have vowed this year to work across party lines to fix K-12 public schools, tweaking the state-budget formulas that give money to school districts and pay teachers. They also say they will look at policies that have led to poor scores on standardized tests, and to more and more teachers leaving their jobs.

Since October, Lucas said, he has been speaking with industry groups, including the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, to weave measures together that boost early-childhood education, and help close the skills gap between high school graduates and the needs for the state’s workforce.

“When you travel the state and ask business leaders ... what keeps them up at night, almost the top issue is workforce and workforce development,” said chamber chief Ted Pitts, a former state representative. “We’re happy that education and workforce development are front and center.”

Most lawmakers Thursday expressed optimism a reform plan will pass, including many Democrats who have pushed for reform for years. Republican Sen. Hembree said he heard someone describe the possible bipartisan efforts as “more kumbaya than a summer youth camp.”

But others expressed concerns, worried that committing to spend millions of dollars more each year could hurt the state if another recession occurs.

Others — including Sherry East, president of the S.C. Education Association teachers’ group — complained the twin House and Senate reform bills were put together without help from teachers.

“This (the bill) is a collection of ideas that a bunch of non-educators sitting in a room came up with, half of which are ... regurgitated policies that have been bounced around the halls of this Legislature for decades,” said state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield.

For an hour Thursday morning, Lucas briefed the House Democratic Caucus on his plan, an effort to win support for his bill from the House’s minority party and give it an even better chance of passing this year.

“I can tell you that, in the House, the prospects (of passing the bill) are very high,” said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland. “The things that he’s (Lucas) talking about — the numbers that he’s using — are across the state. They’re district by district. They’re not just in Republican districts. They’re not just in Democratic districts. They are statewide issues that we have to address.”

Lucas’ vision will face a more serious challenge in the state Senate, where Republicans hold the majority of seats but votes seldom fall along party lines. Also, historically, senators have been reluctant to defer to the House on key legislation, with senators wanting to suggest and debate their own solutions.

However, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said, “The Senate is not only willing to ... work with the House, (but) we want to work across the aisle on this.”

“It’s got to be a bipartisan effort,” said state Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington. “This is more important than politics.”

Reporter Tom Barton contributed to this report.

Reforming schools

Other key parts of S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas’ education plan include:

Ensuring students can read on grade level by the third grade

Establishing a nine-member committee, chaired by Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette, to ensure the state’s schools are producing the workers that S.C. businesses need

Offering free public college or tech school tuition to the children of experienced teachers working in schools rated as “unsatisfactory”

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

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.