IN A BRIGHT, AIRY room overlooking the State House grounds, Susan Heath goes over a list of talking points: South Carolina’s first-year teachers can earn as little as $30,113; the state’s average teacher salary is $2,000 less than the Southeastern average and $10,000 less than the national average; 91 percent of S.C. teachers spend their own money to buy supplies for their classrooms and their students; the number of new teachers graduating from S.C. colleges is plummeting, down to 1,684 last year from 2,060 just three years earlier.
“We don’t want to talk about formulas,” she advises. “What we want to say is it’s time for action.… We know that if someone has gone to school to teach our children, he or she should be able to support a family.”
This isn’t a group of teachers preparing to descend on the Legislature to lobby for better pay, and Susan Heath isn’t a State House insider. She’s an Episcopal priest who runs the S.C. Bishops Public Education Initiative, and she is meeting in an upper room at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral with 30 clergy and laity to begin the dicey second phase of an extraordinary effort by the state’s mainline Christian denominations to ensure that South Carolina provides a decent education to all children.
Evangelical Christians have been making their voices known to legislators for decades. But this is new territory for members of the state’s Lutheran, United Methodist, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches. The quiet Christians, you might call them. Their bishops stepped lightly into the public arena in 2014, with a joint pastoral letter calling on their 800,000 congregants to volunteer in the schools.
The congregants stepped up, and the bishops began a dialogue with legislators and joined in partnership with state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, with a goal of helping to “transform South Carolina’s educational system into a more equitable system and to raise up the truly great work being done by so many teachers and administrators.”
But in the fall, the state Supreme Court ended its oversight of lawmakers’ compliance with its Abbeville v. South Carolina school adequacy ruling, with the promise of the order unfulfilled. So the bishops sent an open letter to legislators in January reminding them of their churches’ work “toward securing a first rate education for each child in South Carolina,” through partnerships with the schools as well as working to “call people into the vocation of teaching.” And they called on lawmakers to do more. Specifically, they asked for better pay and support to help recruit and retain teachers, improved technology in poor districts and collaboration and consolidation among school districts.
On this spring day, a small but enthusiastic group is gathered in response to the bishops’ call to go beyond tutoring and mentoring and step into public advocacy. To meet with their legislators to talk about the bishops’ agenda. As United Methodist Bishop L. Jonathan Holston tells the group, “We seek to be a voice to our leaders, to speak on behalf of children who do not get to vote and have few resources to lobby and influence decisions that have such a remarkable impact on their lives.”
Lutheran Bishop Herman Yoos tells me he is convinced that the education of all children in South Carolina is the most urgent moral and spiritual issue of our time.
Perhaps so, but a chill goes down my spine when Rev. Heath says today’s task will be to ask legislators to support the Senate’s version of next year’s state education budget. If they’re going to lobby, that’s an obvious place to start, since the Senate included more money in the budget for teachers than the House. It’s just … fraught.
I’m not worried about Christians getting involved in politics; we’re called to serve the least of these, and that sometimes involves advocacy. And I’m not worried about running afoul of IRS restrictions on political involvement by churches. What’s tricky is sending out volunteers to speak on behalf of 800,000 Christians, when some of those volunteers have agendas that are … broader.
One woman suggests that the volunteers press their legislators about making the State Retirement System more generous and eliminating a teacher evaluation program, and begins a litany of problems she sees with recent and proposed changes to the pension system. I want to explain that the law doesn’t require what she says it requires, and she’s missing a lot of context. But even though Rev. Heath told the group that I worship at The Church of the Good Shepherd a few blocks away, I am here as an observer, not a participant.
Thankfully, a diplomatic man behind me gently notes that the woman’s points are “not all accurate” and suggests that it’s important to get the facts right. Another woman adds that if people want to mention changes to the retirement system, perhaps they could say that those changes make it even more important to improve teachers’ pay. Good save.
Reggie Lee, a United Methodist minister, counsels the group to stay on message when they talk to their legislators and, most of all, be respectful.
“Respect that they may very well have different opinions,” he said. “I think that’s a huge piece. What we have lost in public discourse is civility. We have lost the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. Amen? Let us model civility.”
Amen indeed. As important as educating children is, there’s probably nothing Christians can do in the political sphere that’s more important than that.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.