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  • Steve Nida

Failing South Carolina's Teachers

One glimmer of hope in an otherwise dismal 2023-24 legislative session has been an attempt to address the critical shortage of teachers in South Carolina. 

 

According to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, school districts reported 1,613 open positions at the start of the academic year, an increase of nine percent from last year.  By February of this year, another 924 teachers had left their classrooms.

 

Low salaries are one important reason for the shortage.  In recent years, the average salary of South Carolina teachers has consistently ranked in the bottom third nationwide.  Data for the 2022-23 school year indicate that the average salary for a South Carolina teacher is $57,778, placing the state 35th nationally.

 

To address this, Democrat Wendell Gilliard (AD 111) proposed H. 4631 that would have raised minimum salaries for starting teachers to $70,000.  Veteran teachers would have earned at least $75,000.  These increases, however, were a bridge too far for the Republican super-majority, and Gilliard's bill failed to move out of committee.

 

However, the state budget for FY 2024-25 (not yet finalized at this writing) specifies a minimum annual salary for teachers of $47,000, a baby step toward Governor Henry McMaster's stated goal of $50,000 by 2026.

 

Two other bills meant to improve the status of teachers almost made it to the finish line, but not quite.  Democrats generally support them both, as does the conservative Palmetto Promise Institute, a think tank that is an incubator for much Republican legislation.

 

S. 305 would have provided new teachers with a year of experience credit for each year of full-time employment in an area relevant to their subject.  Because minimum salaries for teachers are based on the number of years of teaching experience only, new teachers with experience credit could start at a higher entry salary.  This change would bring "real world experience" into the classroom, as the Palmetto Promise Institute noted, and it would make the teaching field more attractive to professionals outside K-12 education.

 

It is worth noting that many universities already recognize the value of putting professionals into the classroom.  Many universities offer a special rank:  professor of practice.  Are South Carolina classrooms so different from university classrooms that Republicans cannot entertain the idea of hiring professionals?

 

Sadly, they cannot.  The bill failed.

 

S. 124 is a related effort to address the shortage.  It would permit the hiring of non-certified teachers in rural school districts, or persons with skills in subject areas where shortages are most acute, such as computer science, math, and special education.  A school principal could choose to participate in a pilot program, subject to the approval of the school district and the State Department of Education. 

 

The number of such persons hired would be set as a percentage of the entire teaching staff.  (The Senate version of this bill capped it at 10 percent; the House version at 25 percent.)

 

Teachers hired in this program would be expected to pursue full-fledged certification within three years.

 

This bill also failed.

 

Another problem that greatly annoys teachers was not addressed by Republicans. Teachers can now have their license suspended if they leave the job before the end of the school year, even if the teacher suffered a family crisis, a medical emergency, or the need to relocate because a spouse took a new job.  More than 100 teachers had their teaching licenses suspended for early departure in 2023.

 

This draconian punitive action remains in force, despite the teacher shortage.

 

On many other fronts related to K-12 education, Republicans continued to harass the teaching profession.  For example, it might be easier to attract and retain teachers if Ellen Weaver, the Superintendent of Education, allowed school librarians to curate their own collections; or if the State stopped micro-managing school curricula around issues of race and sexual identity; or if Republicans didn't encourage parents to take their children out of the public schools and put them in charter schools of dubious educational value.  Yet these insults continue.

 

Bottom line, what did the Republican super-majority accomplish in the 2023-24 session to address the teacher shortage?  They passed a very modest salary increase that does not begin to recognize the value of teachers and their considerable specialized skills.

 

Democratic candidates should hammer home the message that we are the party that supports public school teachers and public education.  Republicans will continue to treat teachers and public schools in this state as they have for more than 150 years:  shamefully.

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