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Their profession is in crisis. But will SC public school teachers walk out?

Public school teachers fed up with their lawmakers have gone on strike and shut down schools in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, where Monday, thousands protested at the Oklahoma State Capitol, demanding higher pay and more education funding.

But those same efforts are unlikely to carry over to South Carolina, where a lack of collective bargaining rights means teachers are not allowed to go on strike.

Absent that tactic or union backing, teachers and lobbyists must sway the S.C. Legislature to take action — without the added leverage of thousands of teachers walking out of schools, effectively shutting them down, and protesting at the State House.

The two S.C. teachers' associations have not even discussed a walkout or a so-called "sick-out." And the state Education Department would not be supportive of either in South Carolina, said agency spokesman, Ryan Brown.

"Our education community is very vocal. They provide a voice to legislators constantly," Brown said. "We do not have unions. But we do have professional organizations, we have school administrators, school boards and two major teacher organizations in addition to our agency having representation over there."

The national teacher protests — mostly in Republican-controlled states — began in February in West Virginia, where teachers successfully demanded a pay raise from lawmakers.

Teachers in South Carolina have rallied before, but it was years ago and focused more on education funding, recalled Kathy Maness, head of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

Even in a so-called "right-to-work" state, Maness said teachers can be just as powerful by using their own voice.

"Our South Carolina teachers need to use their teacher voice. They could really have a powerful voice if they would stand up for their profession and stand up for the students in their classroom," she said. "They need to invite the members of the General Assembly to their classroom."

'Teachers will walk out'

So far this year, S.C. education advocates haven't been able to save classrooms from the teacher shortage that could occur next year after more than 1,500 public school teachers effectively retire this summer.

The state Education Department's push for a 2-percent pay raise for teachers also has come up short.

While S.C. teachers can't walk out of their classrooms in protest, they can — and will — leave the state, one lawmaker says.

"What folks don't realize is that in South Carolina, teachers will walk out," said state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield. "They will just walk to North Carolina and Georgia to take jobs. The walkout is just taking a different form here."

This year, Fanning proposed to remove the state's $10,000 salary cap for retired teachers who return to the classroom. But that proposal — labeled a Band-Aid by his colleagues — was killed last week by the S.C. Senate Finance Committee.

About 6,630 public-sector workers could leave their jobs this summer when a state retirement program — called the Teacher Employee Recruitment Incentive, or TERI — ends June 30. A little more than half of those workers who could leave are public school employees.

Retired S.C. workers can come back to their jobs but must forfeit their retirement benefits if they are paid more than $10,000.

"We have 1,800 new teachers coming out of our colleges. That's at least 2,000 teachers short," Fanning said. "We could have thousands of vacancies next year. Class sizes will rise, and we will have to hire full-time substitute teachers to man classes while we try to recruit teachers from other states to come."

Education Department spokesman Brown said retired teachers still could teach and earn beyond the $10,000 salary cap by teaching in designated critical needs subjects or areas.

"If you're (teaching) at Richland 1 (school district) ... you can find a school not more than 15, 20 minutes away that qualifies," Brown said. "There's also a teacher shortage, so you're going to find a job."

Now, education advocates hope legislative promises of higher teacher pay will keep warm bodies in classrooms.

Teachers last received a 2-percent raise in the 2016-17 year.

The S.C. House in March voted to give all S.C. teachers a 2-percent raise, adding nearly $60 million to the state's budget that starts July 1. The House also added money to bump up the starting salary for new teachers with a bachelor's degree to $32,000, up from about $30,000. The Senate's budget-writing committee proposed the same.

But Senate has taken a different approach to cover pay raises. The Senate Finance Committee included a 1-percent raise in the 2018-19 budget. Budget writers also added money to pay for "step" raises for teachers by increasing the money for each student they teach.

Schools now get $2,425 per student, about $593 less than S.C. law mandates.

Asked by the Greenville News whether Gov. Henry McMaster would veto teacher raises when he gets the budget, spokesman Brian Symmes did not directly respond.

Symmes told the Upstate paper McMaster will "take a look at the budget in its entirety when it reaches his desk," and pivoted to the governor's request for the General Assembly to cover hiring and training school resource officers for every S.C. public school.

A spokesman said the Education Department isn't panicking — yet — over the potential shortage of teachers in the classroom and education majors in S.C. colleges.

"We're concerned, but we're not in panic mode by any means," Brown said.

What's next for S.C. teachers

At the S.C. Education Association, President Bernadette Hampton said Wednesday there have been no talks related to how or if S.C. teachers should react the same way their colleagues have in other red states.

Acknowledging South Carolina is a "right-to-work" state, Hampton said the association has worked collaboratively on legislative committees, position papers and other activities to address issues of low salary and lack of education funding.

"We hope that serving on these committees and bringing forth these recommendations would not fall on deaf ears and hope they would be implemented and not sit on a shelf," Hampton said.

There have been no talks either at the Palmetto State Teachers Association, Executive Director Maness said.

Maness urged teachers to reach out to their legislators and share the good and the bad.

"You don’t have to use your teacher voice just spending a day at the State House," she said. "They (lawmakers) want to see what’s going on. We need to use our teacher voice."

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter
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