Politics & Government

‘Sleeping giant awoke’: Thousands of SC teachers swarm State House demanding change

South Carolina teachers put state lawmakers on notice Wednesday: Work to improve the teaching profession and fix working conditions inside schools, or find yourself out of a job after 2020, they said.

“Either join us or move out of the way,” Blythewood High School Lisa Ellis, founder of grassroots group SCforED, yelled into a microphone, broadcasting to the swarm of red-shirted teachers and their allies who swarmed the State House on Wednesday to demand high pay, smaller class sizes, more money for the classroom and an end to never-ending testing demands.

Estimated at 10,000 strong, the crowd was the largest teacher rally in state history, according to state education leaders.

Teachers and their supporters raised hand-made signs that said “Less Tests. Less Stress” and “Teachers are my heroes.” They chanted “Do your job!” to lawmakers and “Where’s Molly?” — a swipe at state schools chief Molly Spearman, who said Monday she supported their desire to advocate for themselves but not them skipping school to march at the State House.

Amid the protest, state lawmakers left the legislative chambers to stand on the top of the State House steps, watching from above as the crowd grew. Some snapped photos and chatted as teachers, at times, turned toward them and yelled, “Look at this!”

The impact of the march on schools was significant.

Seven school districts and one charter school canceled classes Wednesday in the wake of teachers from all over the state requesting to take the day off from work so they could join the march in the, at times, sweltering Columbia spring heat.

Lynnique Johnson, a second-year math teacher at Great Falls High School in Chester County, called the turnout “mind blowing.”

Another teacher, English teacher Kenny Jackson at Hemingway’s Carvers Bay Middle School, said he expected a “modest” crowd.

“The sea of red is just power,” Jackson said, standing on the outskirts of the thousands who crowded the north steps facing Main Street. “This is my life’s blood. This is the future of my profession as it currently stands. Our children matter.”

The march garnered nationwide attention, including from a handful of 2020 presidential candidates.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the latest in a growing field of Democrats vying for the White House, tweeted Wednesday, “I’m the proud husband of a teacher and know first-hand the impact of their work. Teachers around the country and in South Carolina deserve to earn a living wage and have smaller class sizes so that Americacan continue to out-educate and lead the world. #AllOutMay1.”

U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J.,Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke also gave their support.

“I’ve got all the emotions going on right now,” said Ellis, who last year started SCforED to advocate for teachers after posting to Facebook asking teachers to share their stories. “For too long, teachers have put up with the nonsense, and we’ve gotten to a point where it was hurting teachers and now it’s hurting students. And, like any teacher will tell you, you don’t mess with our students.”

Rally rattles SC leaders

The rally was organized by SCforEd, a grassroots teacher group that seized on long-held frustrations among teachers last year, which were on full display at the State House Wednesday.

Teachers have criticized the Legislature’s attempts this year to reform public education, arguing that lawmakers wrote a comprehensive proposal in January without their input and proposed very little ideas that would actually fix school classrooms.

State leaders strongly disagree.

In an interview with The State, a visibly disappointed House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said Wednesday that teachers have had plenty of input on his education overhaul bill, which passed the House overwhelmingly in March but has since stalled in the Senate.

“It certainly doesn’t help our ability to get support on the issue, which I think is critically important,” he said.

Lucas also said teachers who criticize the House’s education overhaul bill have been fed misinformation about the legislation from outside groups that have a financial interest in keeping the state’s dismal education status quo in place. Lucas would not name those groups.

“Them leaving the classrooms is a direct result of the misinformation that’s being spun by the people who don’t want education to change in South Carolina,” he said. “I’m not going to condemn the teachers because they act on the misinformation.”

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster told The State Wednesday the Senate can pass the bill “if they have the will to get it done.”

Of the rally outside his office — so loud the noise came through the walls — McMaster said teachers are “no more frustrated than I am.”

Despite McMaster’s plea, an education bill passing this year is unlikely.

“This is another one of those issues where it is so big, and what your talking about is so consequential,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “Teachers don’t want us to rush it.”

Raises not enough, teachers say

Teachers do have something to look forward to — this year, teachers are slated to receive the largest teacher pay raise in decades.

The state’s budget that takes effect July 1 includes $159 million to raise the starting teacher salary to $35,000, and will raise every teacher’s pay by at least 4%, with newer teachers seeing higher raises. Lawmakers also successfully attached to the budget a one-year suspension of three state required social studies and science tests and added money to hire more mental health counselors and school resource officers.

But teachers argue successful efforts to address their concerns have excluded one of their main complaints: ballooning class sizes after caps were removed following the recession.

“Class sizes are huge — 25 to 27 students to one teacher,” said Hillary Benekin, a Charleston County teacher at Pepperhill Elementary. “How are you going to reach each learner with that many kids?”

For too long, teachers have trusted lawmakers to do right by teachers and students, said state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, a former educator and vocal critic of the House education bill. Fanning rallied teachers during the demonstration Wednesday.

“For decades, we’ve taken the abuse,” he said. “For decades we’ve taken the neglect. For decades, we’ve allowed other people who determine what’s good for our schools. Today (Wednesday) it changes. This morning, the sleeping giant awoke.”

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.