This should be a no-brainer for state legislators: If you want to have better teachers, you have to provide a better salary.

South Carolina has been failing its teachers, students, and parents for years. Over the last eight years, the General Assembly has steered $4 billion less to public education than state law requires. If you want to know why we keep showing up at the bottom, trying to get education on the cheap is the biggest reason of all.

Investing in education is a conservative strategy. If you pay some now, you won’t have to pay more later because you’ll get contributing taxpayers, not unemployed and underemployed citizens who are a drag on the system and need an array of social services.

Unfortunately in South Carolina, teachers are leaving the profession in droves. In the last year or so, one in 10 public school teachers — about 5,000 teachers — left the classroom, driven away by comparatively low pay, long hours, burdensome paperwork, the culture of teaching to standardized tests, lax school discipline, lack of respect, and too little support from parents and administrators. Yes, the teaching climate is a big, old mess, thanks to underfunding and bureaucracy.

Earlier this year, teachers’ frustration in West Virginia led to a chaotic strike that eventually produced a 5-percent pay raise. The movement spread to other states, including South Carolina, where teachers started new organizing efforts to be ready to face off with state legislators in 2019.

Fortunately, South Carolina legislators have a lifeline as a teachers’ mutiny gains steam: The state has a $1 billion surplus brought on by growth and other factors. When lawmakers return to Columbia in January, they have a pot of money that includes almost $460 million of recurring dollars to spend to make up for years of institutional underfunding.

In other words, members of the General Assembly can pay teachers more, avoid an embarrassing public hullabaloo, and keep schools moving, all without a tax increase. It’s a no-brainer. A 5-percent pay hike would cost $155 million. It would stanch the flow of teachers out of the profession and pay them the Southeastern average. Yes, that’s still average, but it’s better than continuing to ignore the problem. (As a side note, we also advocate paying state employees more with surplus funds; a 2-percent hike would cost $40 million.)

But the consequences of doing nothing — something generally pretty easy for state legislators — are dire. Not only would failing to provide a teacher pay hike squander an enormous opportunity, but it would impact parents — voters — who can expect to have their kids at home more in the spring. Why? Because without a pay hike, it is a foregone conclusion that our teachers will strike for better pay and conditions. That’s how bad morale has gotten. Teachers are about at the breaking point now.

Sumter County teacher Brandon Graves highlighted his situation in an interview this week with The State newspaper: “I have roommates. I drive a car with 115,000 miles on it. I coach track to earn extra, and I still have to pay for (supplies) out of my own budget.”

None of that is right. Teachers should be celebrated, as they were in past generations, not forced to have another job or two to make ends meet. Teachers like Graves are committed to their students, but they can only take so much.

So it’s encouraging now to see discussions and pre-filed bills that call for a Teachers’ Bill of Rights, which includes a commitment to a pay raise and better working conditions.

But make no mistake about the future: If teachers continue to be taken for granted, more will leave the profession and our bottom-of-the-barrel education system will be worse, not better.

South Carolina’s education system is at a crossroads. Don’t miss a golden opportunity. Pay teachers better or suffer long-term consequences that will relegate some of our children to third-world conditions.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. Have a comment?
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