A year after 10,000 educators and their supporters gathered outside the South Carolina Statehouse, they’re planning to rally again March 24, and for good reason. Well into the second legislative year spent in pursuit of impactful education reform, the state House and the Senate have each passed their versions of reform. Over those months, advocates have kept pressure on legislators to help South Carolina schools. Now, lawmakers have passed something. But will the new laws support teachers and fix our failing schools?
After the House passed its version of education reform in 2019, the state Senate spent the first eight weeks of this year’s legislative session in debate over its own education reform proposals. Ultimately, senators approved the Senate bill, S.419, last week with a bipartisan group of four dissenting senators, including Charleston state Sen. Marlon Kimpson and outspoken teacher advocate Sen. Mike Fanning, a freshman Democrat from Great Falls. Joined by Sens. Mia McLeod (D-Richland) and Shane Martin (R-Spartanburg), the four cast their votes against the bill as Senate leaders hurried it along to make way for debate on Santee Cooper.
SC for Ed, the most vocal of state education groups, rolled out its legislative agenda last year, well before lawmakers returned to Columbia. The group’s eight-point list represents some of the state’s long-acknowledged shortfalls, such as low teacher pay, as well as other demands on which there has been less agreement. Take one example: The Senate’s version of the bill fulfills one of the group’s items by doing away with the influential state Education Oversight Committee, blamed for burdensome standardized testing policies. House members did not pass such a measure, which means they’ll have to weigh in on the policy before the bill is passed.
Fortunately, the issue of teacher pay is not part of the education bill, but will be a point of contention as lawmakers consider the state budget in the coming weeks. With Gov. Henry McMaster eager to sign an education reform bill ASAP, and nearly everyone on board with the minimum $3,000 teacher pay raise he suggested last year, it looks like state educators will get another pay increase in the next year. The pay increases should continue, and lawmakers say they will.
However, lawmakers finally paying long overdue bills do not make up for how they continue to underfund our students. With record surpluses in state coffers, House lawmakers are proposing to raise per-student spending a measly $11 in 2020-21 (see our report on p. 6). With the pocket change increase, proposed per-pupil spending ($2,500) is still more than $600 short of the $3,164 the state says it would take to fully fund each student’s education.
It’s great our teachers will get paid more soon. But it should be as plain as the nose on your face that they — and we — have a long list of reasons to protest again this spring.