Whenever Blythewood High School teacher Lisa Ellis reboots her computer, a quote from English novelist George Eliot flashes on the screen: “What do we live for if not to make life better for others.”
On a Sunday night last May, that quote led Ellis — frustrated by the lack of respect for teachers and, she says, classroom mandates handed down without much thought — to create a Facebook group for about 20 of her teacher friends, asking them to describe their classroom experiences.
“Hey, is anybody else discouraged and frustrated and tired?” Ellis, 43, asked her friends. “Then,” she added, “I went to bed.”
By the end of that week, the Facebook group had 1,000 followers. Over the next week, another 1,000 followed. Today, the group has close to 21,000 members, many of them public-school teachers. “I wasn’t the only one who felt that way (frustrated),” Ellis told The State.
An idea born out of frustration, Ellis’ grassroots teachers’ group, SCforED, is galvanizing South Carolina’s debate over paying teachers more money as the state deals with a teacher shortage and considers overhauling failing schools.
In January, SCforED, which has five unpaid board members plus Ellis, motivated 200-plus teachers, young and old, to take a day off from their classrooms and show up at the State House. There, the educators told legislators their teaching stories. Many also met their elected representatives for the first time.
Not even a year old, SCforEd’s board has met with Republican Gov. Henry McMaster’s staff and powerful S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, who last month filed an 84-page education reform proposal — House Bill 3759 — that now has 36 co-sponsors.
A companion bill — Senate Bill 419 — filed by Senate Education Committee chairman Greg Hembree, R-Horry, has five co-sponsors.
SCforEd also has captured the attention of at least one candidate running to become the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020. On Twitter, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., responded to the group, saying she said stands with teachers “for better pay and a stronger education system.”
“I will know ... we have made it officially when we end up on ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show,’ ” Ellis said with a laugh. “But it is humbling. We’re excited to see this advocacy working or at least gaining traction.”
‘All the winds are blowing together’
S.C. lawmakers say they are listening.
But many teachers, including Ellis, are upset that they did not have more of a role in the education reform proposals.
“I’ve always said to teachers, ‘We need to hear from you because education legislation affects you,’ “ said state Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, who chairs the House’s Education and Public Works Committee. “You need to have a voice because if you don’t have a seat at the table, your voice won’t be heard.’ ”
Legislators say the House and Senate education reform proposals are rough drafts, works in progress. Teachers, parents and students will have plenty of opportunities to express their concerns about both bills, they add.
At the request of Speaker Lucas, the House’s K-12 subcommittee will meet later than usual Tuesday so teachers can come to Columbia and testify. Meanwhile, Hembree said he plans to hold four meetings across the state, after school on Mondays, to hear from teachers.
Separately, McMaster — at the request of the S.C. Department of Education — says he supports raising teacher pay by 5 percent. His executive budget requests almost $155 million into the state’s budget that starts July 1 for higher pay.
“All the winds are blowing together,” said Allison, a former Spartanburg County District 5 school board member. “The governor ... the House, the Senate, teachers and parents. Everybody is moving toward a better quality education in the state.”
‘Dad’s consultant tip of the day’
Ellis has been a teacher for 18 years, teaching journalism and media.
She also is a member of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. That association, which has more than 14,000 members, is one of the state’s two more traditional teachers’ groups. The other is the S.C. Education Association.
Working with those groups, Ellis said she wants to ensure teachers are part of the education reform conversation.
Ellis says meeting with lawmakers, trying to digest state laws and understanding the legislative process is new to her and many other teachers. She also acknowledged the group’s 20,000-plus members don’t all agree with each other.
Sometimes, there is confusion.
Last week, for example, a Senate K-12 meeting, on Hembree’s education bill, did not include an opportunity for the public to speak. That produced some heated rhetoric via social media, including a threat, Hembree said.
Via Twitter, SCforEd quickly denounced the threat, saying the group has “no tolerance for violence. That is in opposition to everything good teaching stands for.”
To manage her newfound group, Ellis said she has leaned on the advice of Kathy Maness and Sherry East, heads of the Palmetto teachers’ group and the S.C. Education Association, respectively.
She also has sought the help of state Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun and state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, a former teacher. SCforEd also has found allies among Republicans, including state Rep. Neal Collins, R-Pickens, who has filed a bill that would ensure teachers can speak out about their concerns about education without fearing they will be fired.
Ellis even has leaned on the advice of her father, Larry Ellis, the former director of the S.C. State Employees Association, which advocates for state workers.
“My mom will text and say, ‘Dad’s consultant tip of the day.’ “
Ellis said she knows a complete change in the way that S.C. schools and classrooms operate will not occur this year.
She knows that means more hours spent in her 2006 Chevy Trailblazer SUV with 200,000 miles, driving to school districts to meet with teachers, superintendents and parents. She knows that means dipping into her own pocket for gas money. She knows that means more public hearings at the State House.
Ellis plans to take one break this year, traveling to the Netherlands to see the tulips during spring break. (It took her two years to save up the money, she said.)
“I own up (to not being involved earlier) ... and say part of this is my fault,” Ellis said. “I should have really (been) advocating more for myself, other than writing the letters (to her representative).”
Now, with so many other teachers involved in the education reform debate, Ellis said she hopes no one loses sight of the real goal.
“You’ve got to do something to stop the hemorrhaging of teachers leaving,” she said. “When I think about education, I see the faces in my classroom and the hope that they have for their life and the dreams that they have.
“That’s what I want people to think about.”
The S.C. House and Senate education committees will meet this week to hear testimony on both K-12 education reform bills.:
Topic: House Bill 3759
When: 4:45 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Room 110, Blatt Building
Topic: Senate Bill 419, only the ethics portion of the bill, including school board accountability
When: 9 a.m. Wednesday
Where: Room 308, Gressette Building