Politics & Government

After SC teachers blast proposed K-12 education overhaul, House proposes big changes

A handful of controversial pieces of S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas’ education reform proposal could be removed Thursday after the chairwoman of the House’s K-12 panel suggested changing many of the bill’s provisions that upset S.C. public-school teachers.

At the same time, the House’s budget-writing committee on Wednesday signed off on a portion of the state’s 2019-20 roughly $9.3 billion spending plan — a move that would raise teacher pay by 4 percent or more, depending on each teacher’s classroom experience.

The changes proposed Wednesday by the House’s K-12 subcommittee chairwoman — state Rep. Raye Felder, R-York — are meant to alleviate concerns from S.C. public school teachers, particularly members of the grassroots teachers’ group SCforED, who have blasted the House proposal as “dangerous” and “largely ineffective” at stopping the state’s ongoing teacher shortage.

The proposed changes — which were debated, but not adopted into the bill Wednesday afternoon — come with Lucas’ blessing. The changes include deleting language that could have eventually changed how the state pays its teachers, removing a section that would have allowed high-performing schools to hire noncertified teachers and adding in a “teacher bill of rights.”

When Lucas filed the 84-page education proposal, H. 3759, last month, he hoped to build consensus around a plan to raise starting teacher pay, consolidate small school districts and give the state’s schools superintendent more powers to take over failing schools and school districts.

The Darlington Republican has built bipartisan consensus in the House, where two-thirds of the chamber’s 124 legislators have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. But teachers have complained the legislation was drafted without their input, doesn’t reduce teachers’ administrative burdens and could put teachers doing their best in underperforming schools out of a job.

Some lawmakers also have raised doubts, none more vocally than state Sen. Mike Fanning, a Fairfield Democrat and longtime educator who lampooned the bill earlier this month with a 3,000-word Facebook post.

“This bill is going to be a work in progress,” Lucas told reporters Wednesday at a joint news conference with Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman and Senate Education Committee chair Greg Hembree, R-Horry, on Wednesday. “We’re going to continue to work and take suggestions from anyone who wants to make suggestions.”

Among the proposed House K-12 subcommittee changes:

Deleting a provision that would allow high-performing schools to hire noncertified teachers to teach subjects they have real-world experience in. For example, the proposal would have let a retired chemist teach high school chemistry. Teachers urged lawmakers to remove that proposal, arguing noncertified employees would lack basic teaching skills, leaving students worse off.

Deleting a provision that would have the state’s Education Department study pay bands as opposed to paying teachers more based on experience. Teachers worried that would mean future raises would be based on their students’ outcomes, not teachers’ classroom experience.

Easing concerns that teachers at underperforming schools will be fired immediately during a state takeover. Under a change proposed Wednesday, only the teachers deemed problematic by the state superintendent of education would lose their jobs.

Adding in a “teacher bill of rights” that seeks to reduce administrative burdens — such as paperwork — that limit teachers’ time for their lessons and their students.

Deleting a handful of tests that were supposed to be removed in the first draft of the bill. The bill’s addition of certain tests has been criticized by teachers who say they already spend too much of their time testing students and too little teaching them.

Reinstating parents’ rights to appeal a school’s decision to hold their child back a grade. The first version of the bill would have removed that right, leading more underperforming students to be retained.

Deleting part of the bill that could have led to jail time for school board members who fail to attend mandatory training. The bill would still allow those school board members to be fined.

Changing the official title of the staffer who works for the new “Zero to Twenty” education committee from “tsar” to “executive director.” House leaders previously called the staffer a “tsar” after the name stuck in brainstorming sessions, but it since has been found to evoke negative connotations of imperial Russia.

House leaders still support some pieces of the bill that are up for deletion, including the effort to hire noncertified teachers with real-world experience, aides told The State. But those proposals weren’t worth fighting for as Lucas seeks widespread support for the bill, they said.

Other controversial aspects of the bill would remain, including the creation of the Zero to Twenty committee itself. Some educators, Fanning among them, have complained it only adds another layer of government bureaucracy to South Carolina’s education system.

House leaders have said that isn’t true, since the committee won’t have oversight authority and will only make recommendations to the General Assembly. However, on Wednesday, the House panel edited the proposed committee’s makeup, adding that at least two of its members must be “highly effective” current or retired teachers picked by the General Assembly.

House Democrats said Wednesday they hadn’t seen the proposed revisions before the afternoon meeting and wanted more time to review the changes before voting on them. The education panel will reconvene Thursday morning.

In a separate meeting Wednesday afternoon, House’s budget-writing committee agreed to add roughly $159 million into the state’s budget to help raise starting teacher pay to $35,000 — up from $32,000 — and give teachers pay raises. For example, teachers with less than five years of experience would get a 6- to 10-percent raise and teachers with five to 20 years in the classroom would get a 4-percent raise, on average.

Those raises, lawmakers said Wednesday, would be fully funded by the state.

In the Senate, Education Committee chair Hembree said Wednesday the first two of four late meetings on the House’s companion bill, S. 419, will be held in mid-March.

The first will be at 6 p.m. on March 18 at the Gaffney High School Auditorium. The second will be at 6 p.m. on March 21 at the Georgetown High School Auditorium.

House Speaker Lucas said Wednesday he wants the full House to debate and vote on the bill during the first week of March, before the House takes up the state budget the next week.

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Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.
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.