The Newberry County School District knew that finding enough teachers for the 2018-19 school year could pose problems.
South Carolina already had a slim pool of available teachers. Out-of-state applicants were declining. Then, on June 30, a state retirement program ended, dealing a blow to Newberry and other school districts that have to replace retiring, veteran teachers.
“We lost several teachers,” said Pam Arrington, head of human resources for Newberry schools. But, she added, “We have been able to fill those positions.”
To fill those vacancies, Newberry schools have hired a handful of foreign teachers this year, adding to the five hired last year. The district still has four teaching vacancies.
Not every S.C. school district has been so lucky.
With schools set to open in two weeks, school districts in Richland and Lexington counties have almost 160 teaching vacancies. Kershaw County schools have another nine. The Beaufort County school district has about 21 openings. The Horry County school district won’t say how many openings it has but vacancies are up from last year, it says, citing the number of retiring teachers.
Two weeks shy of S.C. students returning to school, districts still lack certified math, science, foreign language and special education teachers. Some schools also need psychologists, speech therapists and art teachers.
School officials tell The State newspaper they are working hard to fill vacancies by mid-August, when teachers return to work — and most are confident they will.
Education advocates have worried that the June 30 end to a once-popular state employee retirement program only would add to the state’s growing teacher shortage.
Over the past year, those advocates expressed concern the retirement program’s end would result in at least 2,000 fewer older, veteran teachers whose classes or schools are not considered “critical needs.” If they stayed on the job, non-critical-needs teachers could not earn more than the state’s $10,000 salary cap for working retirees.
But the end of the Teacher Employee Retirement Incentive program — or TERI — is not solely to blame for the state’s escalating teacher shortage, one Midlands educator said.
“The teacher shortage is not a function of TERI ending,” said Frank Morgan, who recently retired as superintendent for the Kershaw County School District. “TERI simply helped cover up the problem for a long time.”
‘We all know it’s a problem’
South Carolina’s 82 school districts are expected to have more teacher vacancies than recorded at the start of the last school year.
Why? History suggests the answer.
At the start of the 2017-18 school year, there were 550 teaching positions open statewide — a 16 percent increase compared with vacancies reported at the start of the previous school year, according to Winthrop University’s Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, a professional development program for teachers.
Educators say they worry that number will only rise as fewer S.C. college students pursue low-paying, high-stress teaching positions, and out-of-state teaching applicants go to states that pay more.
A shortage of special education teachers accounts for a large number of the open positions.
“It’s a very big deal. Special education teachers leave at twice the rate of regular ed teachers,” said Amanda Walkup, a special education teacher at Hillcrest High School in Greenville County. She serves on the board of the S.C. Council for Exceptional Children, a group that advocates on behalf of special education.
In special education, “five of us (teachers) will leave and only one (new teacher) comes out of college,” Walkup said.
“We all know it’s a problem. But I don’t know that the powers that be are providing what we need to overcome the problem.”
The shortage of special ed teachers — and the need for more math, science and social studies teachers — is a reality for S.C. schools, which last year had 190 vacancies in those critical areas.
For instance, in the Richland 2 School District, officials said this week they need to fill about 30 teaching vacancies before school starts. Those vacancies include special education teachers at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
The Lexington 1 School District had 19 vacancies as of last week, including for special education teachers.
More than 100 miles away in Beaufort County, officials say they should be able to fill 21 vacancies — including four for science teachers — by the time students return to school on Aug. 20. Last year, the Beaufort district did not have any vacancies at the start of the school year.
What could happen if those classes are not filled?
“Class sizes will increase, teachers will have increased workload or they’ll pull in substitutes,” sometimes long-term substitutes, said Jennifer Garrett at Winthrop’s Center for Educator Recruitment.
Schools also may hire more international teachers. This past school year, 822 foreign-born teachers worked in S.C. classrooms.
“We’ve hired more international teachers than we’ve hired before,” particularly for Spanish, math and science classes, Newberry’s Arrington said. “We hired five last year. We’ve hired four, five (more) this year.”
Winthrop’s Garrett says she does not see S.C. teacher vacancies dwindling, at least not in the foreseeable future.
“The numbers will probably increase,” she said, adding, “I hope I’m wrong.”
Last September — a month into the 2017-18 school year — Kershaw’s then-superintendent Morgan worried his district, outside of Columbia, was set to lose most, if not all, of its experienced teachers.
He was not alone.
State law caps what a retired state worker can earn on the job at $10,000 while they are still drawing retirement. But teachers are exempt from that cap if the subject they teach or the geographical area they teach in is considered a critical need.
District officials tell The State newspaper that some veteran teachers did leave.
For instance, in Horry County, the school system’s current vacancies grew because teachers left with the end of TERI or chose to retire, the district says.
However, schools in the Grand Strand, Lowcountry and Midlands surveyed by the newspaper say most, if not all, of the vacancies that resulted from the end of the state retirement program have been filled.
School districts “knew about this coming for quite some time,” said Ryan Brown, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education.
The combination of early preparation, hiring teachers from alternative certification programs and a 1-percent pay raise helped to “kind of soften the blow,” Brown added.
In Kershaw, Morgan said administrators, faculty and the county school board were “really aggressive” with recruitment, starting last fall.
Morgan said the state needs to draw up a multifaceted plan now to replace teachers who retire or quit.
“It’s not just going to be a silver bullet,” he said. “Like one of my colleagues says, ‘It’s going to be silver BBs.’ ”
SC teacher vacancies
As thousands of SC students prepare to return to school, many of the state’s 82 school districts still are working to fill vacant teaching positions, including:
▪ 160 vacancies in Lexington and Richland counties
▪ 21 vacancies in Beaufort County
▪ 9 vacancies in Kershaw County