Will the May 1st SC teacher march make history? What it could mean for the movement

Thousands of teachers march to SC State House

South Carolina teachers, students and advocates marched to the State House to call on lawmakers to increase their pay and approve reforms that improve the state’s public schools.
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South Carolina teachers, students and advocates marched to the State House to call on lawmakers to increase their pay and approve reforms that improve the state’s public schools.

When South Carolina teachers descend on the State House Wednesday, they will have already made a bit of history.

By late Tuesday, seven school districts — two in Richland and one in Lexington — had decided to close Wednesday given the sheer number of teachers who asked their districts for the day off to protest for higher pay and better working conditions in Columbia.

In Richland School District One alone, officials there said they received 712 requests to be absent from teachers.

The rally, organized by upstart teachers group SCforED, is expected to draw more than 4,000 teachers, students and their advocates to the State House — producing a crowd of demonstrators, dressed in red, that could rival protest marches and historic gatherings that have preceded it on the state capitol grounds.

It’s unlike anything S.C. officials and education leaders interviewed by The State could recall happening on this scale.

Supporters of the rally hope that Wednesday not only puts their mark on history, but catapults teachers’ causes to the top of the agenda in next year’s elections.

“The numbers (of teachers) are unprecedented,” said Jon Hale, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s College of Education. “This is a movement that really needs to be reckoned with.”

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Will the crowd make a mark?

If 4,000 or more teachers show up on the State House lawn Wednesday, their presence will be surely felt.

Early this year, SCforED assembled 250 teachers to lobby state lawmakers amid a debate over a bill in the state House that called for increasing starting pay, eliminating tests and overhauling the state’s failing, mostly rural schools.

A year ago, hundreds more teachers and state workers protested for higher pay in front of the State House, after The State reported extensively on why teachers are fleeing the classroom in record numbers, creating a growing crisis for the profession and for public schools.

Wednesday’s rally is expected to beat turnout for that event — by the thousands.

It could find its place in a lineup of historic gatherings at the State House that have had reportedly high turnout, including thousands who flocked to the State House in 2015 to watch the Confederate flag’s removal from the grounds, thousands who came to hear then-candidate Barack Obama, among other candidates, speak at the 2008 King Day at the Dome and tens of thousands who marched on Columbia in 2000 against the Confederate flag flying on the State House dome.

Talking to The State on Tuesday, former Democratic governor and U.S. education secretary Dick Riley, recalled the 2000 march and the pressure it put on legislators. Thousands of teachers showing up Wednesday could turn the tide for education reform, though the outcome will be difficult to predict, said Riley, who during his time at the state’s helm championed passage of a law that led to major funding reforms for S.C. schools.

“The teachers are making a very legitimate point,” Riley said. “This is certainly a dramatic way to make it.”

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.

What do SC teachers want?

This year, state leaders dubbed 2019 the year of education, pledging to pass meaningful school improvements.

But teachers said they found themselves on the outside of the conversation, arguing the comprehensive proposal pitched by lawmakers would do little to recruit enough teachers to the profession and keep the experienced ones in their classrooms.

Despite budget tinkering that would give teachers at least a 4% pay raise next year — more for newer teachers — teachers argue that they need more, particularly in the state’s poor school districts that struggle each year to hire enough new teachers.

But Wednesday’s rally, they say, is not just about teacher pay — it’s also about advocating for better working conditions.

That means less testing. It means at least 30 minutes a day to eat lunch, use the restroom or pull together lesson plans, they say. Teachers say they also want to see more support from their district leaders, help with disruptive students and, especially, smaller class sizes.

Pam Bouchard, teacher at West Florence High, pulled her daughters out of school “to see history in action.” She explains why.

Will this movement be powerful enough to move the needle in SC?

Hard to say.

In other states, teacher protests have worked in their favor. In 2018, teachers in mostly red states like South Carolina took to their statehouses, demanding their lawmakers listen to their requests.

In West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, public school teachers shut down their schools, going on strike to protest and demand lawmakers put more money toward education and their pay checks.

And Wednesday, in neighboring North Carolina, thousands more teachers also have forced the closure of schools in some of the state’s most populated areas to demand that lawmakers raise pay, hire more school librarians, social workers, nurses and other staff.

But South Carolina teachers lack a powerful tactic used by teachers in other red states: unions.

Which means teachers and lobbyists, working to convince lawmakers to fulfill their requests, do so without a real seat at the negotiating table and without the ability to threaten action if their demands are not met. This year, lawmakers also point to money put into the state budget to give pay raises as ways they are helping teachers, despite the Legislature’s failure, so far, to pass education reforms or even push for ones teachers are calling for, such as smaller class sizes.

But some lawmakers say the resurgence of teachers’ voices and the flames of social media could help turn tides in the state, especially ahead of a major election year.

“A number of my colleagues ask me is this the right time (for a protest) ... with six days left in session,” said state Sen. Mike Fanning, a Fairfield Democrat and former educator who has arguably led the State House charge to stall a House bill to overhaul schools.

“Like a surfer, a wave is coming and you have one of two options: you say it’s not the best time to take the wave, let it pass or you take the wave. The wave (of teachers) is coming.”

Going to the rally? Here’s what you should know

WHEN: Registration opens at 9 a.m. at the S.C. Department of Education, 1429 Senate St.

WHERE: Participants will march down Senate St. to the State House grounds, 1100 Gervais St.

PARKING: Columbia has a number of public parking garages around the State House, but several also give local drivers with monthly spots priority, including parking decks on Lady, Lincoln, Park and Sumter streets. Carpooling or taking rideshare cars Lyft and Uber are recommended.

ROAD CLOSURES: Columbia Police Department said Tuesday that no roads are expected to be closed. However, drivers hoping to avoid the crowds should avoid the area around the State House, including the areas of Senate, Sumter and Pendleton streets.

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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.