Goose Creek Elementary teacher K.C. Murphy never had been to the State House before Tuesday, when she joined more than 200 other teachers who descended on Columbia to push for more money and a fix for the state’s K-12 school system.
“It’s important that we’re here,” said Murphy, who trotted from office to office with more than a dozen other Berkeley County teachers to speak with S.C. House members.
The day’s organizers, the SCforED grassroots teachers’ group, said about 250 teachers left their classrooms to come to Columbia, wearing red in a show of solidarity with other teachers across the country.
Some of the teachers said they feel they have been pushed to the sidelines as the General Assembly readies to begin debate Wednesday of an education reform bill, sponsored by S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas.
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The Darlington Republican filed House Bill 3759 last week, an 84-page proposal that would raise the starting salary of teachers to $35,000, give other teachers pay raises, consolidate rural school districts and overhaul how the state pays for schools and classrooms.
Amid a statewide teacher shortage, teachers have been calling on legislators to add more money to the state budget that starts July 1 to increase their salaries above the Southeastern average — just more than $51,000.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman both have proposed 5 percent raises. However, some Democratic legislators say far more — from 10 to 20 percent pay hikes — is needed.
Low pay is blamed, in part, for the absence of qualified teachers in some S.C. classrooms. Unable to hire or retain enough teachers, schools increasingly have had to rely on substitute teachers and international teachers to educate the state’s K-12 students.
However, pay isn’t the only reason that teachers quit the classroom, some said Tuesday. Teachers also leave because they aren’t given enough planning time and have to spend too much time preparing students for standardized tests.
“If I’m not being cared for enough as an educator, I cannot give my best to them (students),” said Dorchester District 2 third-grade teacher Emily Rojas, 27, a University of South Carolina graduate. “We’re leaving in droves.”
Earlier Tuesday, state Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, asked a State House room packed with teachers how many have thought about quitting their jobs.
Nearly every teacher raised their hand.
Teachers tried to relay that message Tuesday when they met with state representative and senators. Bingo cards in hand — with squares encouraging them to meet with legislators — teachers were told to share their stories, telling lawmakers what they and their students need to succeed.
“I think of this as we’re going into a parent conference,” said SCforED founder Lisa Ellis, a Blythewood High School teacher. “I don’t ever want a parent coming in, lambasting me and telling me all the things I’m doing wrong.
“A lot of them (lawmakers) just are unaware of what’s going on in the classroom.”
Teachers have to start telling their stories more often, said state Sen. Mike Fanning, a Fairfield County Democrat and former teacher.
“I need them (lawmakers) to feel your passion,” Fanning told a group of teachers.
That passion found a voice Tuesday in meetings between teachers and staffers at the Governor’s Office, and during a nearly 16-minute impromptu meeting between Berkeley County teachers and Speaker Lucas.
Teachers told Lucas they appreciated the attention being given to K-12 education. But, they said, there are concerns with his bill, particularly a proposal to look at eliminating the salary schedule for teachers, which increases pay based on the number of years of experience, not merit.
In a video of that meeting provided to The State, Lucas told teachers his proposal is not the final product that legislators will pass but an effort to get “something moving.”
“I’m excited about starting the conversation,” Lucas said, according to the video. “We want everyone to weigh in.”
Some teachers left the State House on Tuesday happy that lawmakers appeared willing to talk to them.
Others were frustrated, irked some legislators had not read Lucas’ bill.
“I’m pleasantly frustrated,” Rojas said. “I will not back down. There will be a loud voice (from teachers). They have to listen to it or else we’ll just vote them out because they do work for us.”