Politics & Government

SC governor: Teachers’ demands justified. They are ‘no more frustrated than I am.’

Gov. Henry McMaster said Wednesday South Carolina’s teachers are justified in demanding better pay and working conditions, even though he doesn’t approve of thousands of them skipping school for a massive teacher march on the State House.

As sounds from the raucous rally echoed into his first-floor office in the State House, the Columbia Republican called on lawmakers to stay overtime in session, if necessary, to pass a bill aimed at improving South Carolina’s public schools and making life better for fed-up teachers.

That bill passed the House in March but has stalled in the Senate, even as McMaster and House leaders have called on senators to take action.

“They can get it done if they have the will to get it done,” McMaster said in an interview with The State, adding the teachers rallying outside his office are “no more frustrated than I am.”

As the 2019 legislative session draws to a close, senators have said time has run out to pass the House’s education bill. Among other things, that bill would raise starting teacher pay to $35,000 — from $32,000 — eliminate four state tests, give teachers a 30-minute planning period and give the S.C. superintendent of education more power to take over failing schools and districts.

The 71-year-old governor said that delay sends a terrible message — in a state that prides itself on being business friendly — that South Carolina doesn’t care about preparing students to enter the work force and “may not be open for business.”

“To be weak on education in some parts of the state, as we are, particularly in the rural areas is not good,” McMaster said. “But to be weak on education and not acknowledge it and not fix it is a disaster.”

The Senate has heard McMaster’s calls for urgency, but the State House’s upper chamber wants to take time to fully vet the education proposal before passing it into law, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

“This is another one of those issues where it is so big and what you’re talking about is so consequential, you don’t want to rush it,” the Edgefield Republican said. “Teachers don’t want us to rush it.”

One of teachers’ chief criticisms of the House bill — sponsored by House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington — is that it doesn’t do enough to fix the ongoing teacher shortage or fully address other challenges facing S.C. schools, especially in rural areas where the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 the state fails to provide a “minimally adequate” education.

McMaster says he agrees. He vowed to spend years pushing the Legislature to eliminate more tests, reduce classroom sizes that have been bloated since the Recession, give teachers more planning time, ensure classrooms are more orderly, and put a school resource officer in every school.

But the General Assembly must start by passing the first step this year, he said.

“We don’t have to fix it in one year, but we have to make a clear, major start on fixing it, and then we can take other steps to make it even stronger in succeeding years.”

McMaster said the energy at the State House’s teacher rally “is an indication of the concern that teachers and parents and others share for the future of their children.”

“I wish they were in the classrooms,” McMaster said. “I wish they didn’t feel it was necessary to be here. These steps that we’re trying to take now should have been taken a long time ago, but we’re doing it now.”

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.