As SC legislative session wraps, teachers say work not done to address educator shortage

Published: May. 17, 2022 at 7:47 PM EDT|Updated: May. 18, 2022 at 6:14 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - At the same time South Carolina’s 2022 legislative session began in January, a report found there were more than 1,100 vacant teaching positions across the state at that point.

The midyear update to the annual SC Educator Supply and Demand Report from CERRA, the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, & Advancement, revealed those 1,121 vacancies were up from the 1,033 reported at the start of the school year.

Leaders from both parties at the State House listed education among their priorities for this legislative session, which ended last week, and educator organizations said while actions taken since January may provide for a good start in addressing South Carolina’s growing teacher shortage, lawmakers can’t stop there.

“It’s not a situation where the General Assembly can rest on its laurels. There’s so much more that must be done to address the teacher shortage,” Patrick Kelly of the Palmetto State Teachers Association said.

Kelly and Sherry East from the South Carolina Education Association both agree a bill Gov. Henry McMaster just signed into law Monday should help with that.

It guarantees a half-hour break with no assigned duties or responsibilities each day for all elementary and special education teachers.

“This will let those teachers do basic things like have a restroom break, take a moment to eat their lunch, and really that improve working conditions, which is a core factor that’s driving the teacher shortage in our state,” Kelly said.

The unencumbered time law must be fully implemented by July 1, 2023.

Both Kelly and East called it one of the major accomplishments for teachers this legislative session.

“We heard from our teachers that going to the bathroom was a priority for them. They want to be able to take a break during the day and at least use the restroom, so the 30 minutes of unencumbered time is huge for us,” East said.

While lawmakers are no longer in Columbia three days a week, as they are during the regular legislative session, they will be returning in the coming weeks to finalize outstanding legislation, including some bills related to education.

After the House of Representatives and Senate passed two different versions of a bill that would create the voucher-like “Education Scholarship Account” program in South Carolina, a small group of members from each chamber will need to work out a compromise to send to the governor.

That bill has generally been opposed by teachers, who argue the millions of dollars in state funding that would be put into the program, to allow certain families to send their children to private schools, would be better invested in public schools.

The entire General Assembly will also reconvene in mid-June to finalize the upcoming state budget.

“In a time when there is plenty of money in South Carolina, we are really hopeful that they will go back with that budget and make sure all educators get a raise,” East said.

While both the House and Senate have put more money toward schools and raises for some teachers in the respective versions of the budget they have approved, the House’s raises the statewide minimum salaries at each cell on the teacher pay schedule by $4,000, including increasing the starting minimum salary from $36,000 to $40,000. Its members also recently added an additional $50 million for public education after some districts said they would need more funding to pay for the mandated raises.

The Senate’s version of the budget, meanwhile, raises each minimum by $2,000, upping the starting salary to $38,000, though senators have argued districts should still have the money to add to those raises if they wanted to do so.

“That only guarantees a pay raise for teachers in 25 of our 77 districts. In a year when we have a record budget surplus ponied with a record teacher shortage, it’s just not acceptable to only provide raises in 25 out of 77 districts,” Kelly said.

Other pushes fell short this year, including to give teachers more flexibility to get out of their contracts and to expand scholarship stipends for college students majoring in education, as a recruitment tool.

“We’re saddened to not see that bill because we think that was common-sense legislation to enhance educator recruitment, but we’ll be pushing hard for it next year,” Kelly said.

At the end of last week, House members moved to create a statewide task force to hold hearings and figure out how to recruit and retain more teachers in South Carolina.

Kelly said he hopes that happens and sparks meaningful legislation, but whether that task force comes to fruition will be determined when the General Assembly passes a budget.

Both East and Kelly both said more focus also needs to be put next year on improving working conditions for teachers, like legislation to address growing class sizes.

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