Politics & Government

SC House speaker: Education will top agenda again. But first, a request for teachers

The scene at SC State House on May 1 as thousands of teachers rally

An estimated 7,000 teachers rallied on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at the South Carolina State House to call on lawmakers to increase their pay and approve reforms that improve the state’s public schools.
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An estimated 7,000 teachers rallied on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at the South Carolina State House to call on lawmakers to increase their pay and approve reforms that improve the state’s public schools.

The Republican leader of the state House of Representatives says his chamber will take another stab at improving South Carolina’s public schools next year after attempts early this year stalled in the state Senate.

But first, he wants to hear from teachers.

State House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said Tuesday he and state Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, who chairs the chamber’s education committee, will hold five closed-door, regional meetings in September with district-level teachers of the year to gather ideas for how state legislators can help improve public education and working conditions for teachers.

The meetings — set for Sept. 23-26 and Sept. 30 — follow a demonstration in May when 10,000 teachers and their supporters marched to the State House, criticizing lawmakers for refusing to act on their concerns over pay and working conditions that, they say, has driven hundreds of good teachers out of the classroom.

Teachers invited to participate are being notified in a letter from Allison that was provided to The State on Tuesday.

In it, Allison said she and the speaker want the conversations to be “frank and meaningful.”

“We can’t wait on the Senate to deal with our reform bill,” Lucas told The State on Tuesday. “We’re going to take up legislation again this year (in the General Assembly’s off season) that’s going to try to move the South Carolina education system forward.”

State lawmakers rejected to work overtime in Columbia this summer to pass a bill aimed at fixing the state’s public schools, after an unprecedented number of teachers took a day off from work last month to protest in front of the capitol in downtown Columbia.

That protest was the culmination of a teacher-led grassroots effort, building for about a year before the march, to encourage lawmakers to address the challenges facing the state’s K-12 teachers and students. Those challenges are causing teachers to flee the classroom in record numbers, as The State’s Classrooms in Crisis series reported last year, after interviewing dozens of S.C. public school teachers.

The House-sponsored bill was overwhelmingly adopted by the chamber in March, but stalled in the Senate Education Committee, where senators stripped out a handful of controversial provisions they described as “feel good” language without real impact.

Senate Education Committee chairman Greg Hembree, R-Horry, told The State his committee will send a bill to the floor in January despite repeated requests from House leaders and Gov. Henry McMaster to work during the summer to pass the bill.

“The longer it stays in the Senate, the further behind we get,” Lucas said.

‘They’ve got their finger on the pulse’

While the new House education bill is far from finalized, Lucas has said on Tuesday he expects to include proposals to increase participation in 4-year-old kindergarten, add computer coding as an alternative to taking a foreign language and add provisions that target lagging graduation and high drop-out rates.

“Our graduation rates are abysmal and our graduation rates are something we’re going to have to address,” he said.

Lucas also said he expects the General Assembly to put more money in the state budget toward teachers’ paychecks — part of a five-year plan to raise the average S.C. teacher salary to the national average of nearly $60,000.

South Carolina teachers are this year slated to get at minimum a 4% pay raise — with newer, less experienced teachers getting more — as part of a statewide effort to fill classroom vacancies, particularly in the state’s poorest school districts.

Lawmakers also agreed to raise the base starting salary for teachers up to $35,000, though most school districts pay above that.

Allison told The State she expects the September teacher meetings to bear suggestions the House can include in the new proposal.

“We’re going to approach every possible problem that they foresee that keeps them from being the teacher that they need to be to their students, whether it’s class sizes, whether it’s discipline,” she said. “They’ve got their finger on the pulse of the other teachers.”

Lucas also brushed aside any notion that House leaders should have held these meetings prior to crafting legislation this year.

“We’ve been doing this since 2015,” Lucas said, referring to hearings and meetings held following the S.C. Supreme Court’s ruling in a landmark school equity lawsuit originally brought years ago against the state by Abbeville and other districts. “We’re not the Johnny-come-lately to the education issue.”

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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.