Pay raises, contract reform, school safety among teachers’ 2024 legislative priorities | #schoolsaftey

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) – In just a handful of weeks, state lawmakers will be back in Columbia to tackle issues facing South Carolinians.

One of those challenges, affecting hundreds of thousands of students and families across the state, is the worsening teacher shortage.

The two lead groups that advocate for educators at the State House say addressing the growing issue remains a top priority for the next legislative session.

For both the Palmetto State Teachers Association and the South Carolina Education Association, that involves raising the statewide starting salary for teachers for another year.

Gov. Henry McMaster and State Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver have both voiced their support for boosting teachers’ minimum pay up to $50,000 by 2026.

“We’ve seen states like Tennessee and Arkansas have gotten their minimum pay to $50,000, so the quicker we can get there, the better,” Patrick Kelly of the Palmetto State Teachers Association said. “But at minimum, we need a $2,500 raise to the statewide minimum salary schedule to keep us on track to reach the goal of the governor by 2026.”

That would bring the starting salary up to $45,000, but both groups reiterated that raising minimum pay alone won’t turn around the shortage in classrooms across the state.

Sherry East of the South Carolina Education Association said her organization is backing “anything and everything that deals with the teacher shortage: pay, benefits, housing projects.”

East said they also want the legislature to go beyond raising starting teacher pay.

“Whatever we move it to, we want to see it be equitable across the board to make sure that everybody in the system sees something, including our support staff,” she said.

Kelly of the PSTA pointed to two bills that the legislature has already advanced and can pick up when they return.

One bill, H.4280, would empower teachers more in the contract process, a priority for both groups.

Teachers sign their contracts in May, but the state budget is typically not finalized until June, so they don’t know exactly how much they will be making the next school year until weeks after they sign.

“You get locked in,” East said. “You can get transferred, you can get whatever, and the district kind of owns you for the next school year.”

The legislation, which has passed the House of Representatives and sits in the Senate, would give teachers 10 days to withdraw their contract without penalty once a district has posted its salary scheduled, after the budget is finished.

The bill also reduces the potential penalty a teacher can face for breaking that contract during the school year, cutting it from a maximum one-year suspension of their teaching license if their local district reports it to the State Board of Education to a maximum six-month suspension. It would also give the State Board discretion over whether it levies any penalty at all for breach of contract.

“This bill recognizes teachers as professionals and gives them the respect that pretty much any other profession has, to at least know what you’re going to be paid when you put your pen on the dotted line,” Kelly said.

The second bill Kelly noted, S.125, has passed the Senate and sits in the House.

It aims to get more future teachers in the pipeline by providing scholarship stipend opportunities for college education majors.

“That would come out of lottery dollars, obviously, but we know that’s an important tool to recruit the next generation of talent into the teaching profession,” he said, explaining this would be an expansion of an existing lottery-funded scholarship offering to math and science majors.

East said the SCEA also wants to see more done to bolster student mental health services, while Kelly said strengthening school safety is the PSTA’s other top focus for next year.

This year, lawmakers put $20 million in the state budget for safety upgrades in schools. Demand outpaced available dollars when the South Carolina Department of Education opened that funding up for district applications, so Kelly said they believe additional money should be allocated for those grants in next year’s spending plan.

“We need to make sure that every student in South Carolina has access to a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, and doing so would enhance safety so students can focus on their academic growth and potential,” Kelly said.

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