South Carolina

10,000 people marched. Where does the SC teacher movement go from here?

SC teacher explains: ‘This is why we’re marching’

Pam Bouchard, teacher at West Florence High, pulled her daughters out of school “to see history in action.” She explains why.
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Pam Bouchard, teacher at West Florence High, pulled her daughters out of school “to see history in action.” She explains why.

When Kenny Jackson returned to his Myrtle Beach home late Wednesday — his red T-shirt drenched in sweat after standing on the S.C. State House grounds for about six hours — the middle school teacher said he felt like progress had been made.

“I’ve been teaching for about two years now, and I’ve never seen teachers congregate like that,” said the Georgetown County Carvers Bay Middle School teacher. “I felt relieved and I felt encouraged. I felt energized. I felt reinvigorated, because I now know that there are other people who feel like how I feel and want the same things that I want.”

Two days after an unprecedented 10,000 teachers and their supporters shut down seven school districts and covered the S.C. State House grounds to demand higher pay and better working conditions, South Carolina’s teachers are asking, “What’s next?”

Abuzz with excitement on social media, teachers have proposed calling their lawmakers like clockwork to voice their concerns before the February primaries, or attending legislative hearings before the January session starts and even planning for another rally.

Not every teacher, however, wants to leave their class again.

In dozens of interviews on Wednesday with The State, most teachers said they were hopeful that Wednesday’s rally was a wake up call — strong enough that lawmakers would recognize their demands without teachers having to take any more time away from their students.

Time is running out this year to see results.

S.C. lawmakers are near ready to head home for the year, leaving behind a narrowing, if not already closed, window of opportunity to sway policy or get more money added to the budget for higher raises.

And, compared with teachers in other red states who in 2018 went on strike for days, South Carolina teachers took just one day off of work Wednesday to protest at the capitol. Though the march closed seven school districts and one charter school, all serving more than 123,000 students, classes resumed Thursday.

Wednesday, according to dozens of S.C. teachers, was the first time they had publicly advocated for their jobs, or visited the State House. It also was the start of something bigger, they said, vowing to become more active in their state’s politics.

“May 1 can’t be just a flash point,” said Patrick Kelly, a Blythewood High School AP U.S. history teacher. “It has to be a sustained effort.”

Grassroots group eyes momentum

Organizers of Wednesday’s march — grassroots-born SCforED — hope to build on the energy that resulted in 10,000 marchers at the State House.

“This goes to really reforming education,” said Blythewood teacher Lisa Ellis, who founded the year-old group. “I really think that this is going to be a great eye-opening experience for not only teachers, but the Legislature and the general public.”

Less than 24 hours after teachers returned to their classrooms Thursday, SCforED tweeted: “We need to get more organized.”

That means contacting lawmakers, they said. Advocating for their jobs. Staying current on policy decisions being made in Columbia.

“We shouldn’t allow others to make us feel ashamed for trying to do our best to educate children effectively,” the group tweeted Thursday. “Together we can reshape the system if we won’t back down.”

Teachers are set to get at least a 4% pay raise next year — the largest in decades — in the state’s budget that starts July 1.

But reshaping the state’s entire school system will have to wait at least another year.

A comprehensive education package has stalled in the Senate after the House passed a massive education proposal in March, frustrating some state leaders who say, despite the timing, the General Assembly could pass major reforms to address failing schools.

“To be weak on education in some parts of the state, as we are, particularly in the rural areas is not good,” Republican Gov. Henry McMaster told The State during the rally, urging lawmakers to advance education improvements. “But to be weak on education and not acknowledge it and not fix it is a disaster.”

Senate Education Committee chairman Greg Hembree told The State the Senate won’t rush to pass the K-12 bill this calendar year.

However, the Horry Republican, who filled in as a substitute teacher Wednesday in a seventh-grade social studies class at Myrtle Beach Middle School, said his committee will meet over the summer and fall, then send the bill to the Senate floor for a vote in January.

Doing so would give lawmakers time to tackle an outdated funding formula used to filter money into schools and pay teachers, he said. The approach would be “a whole lot more impactful than the things in that (education) reform bill,” Hembree said.

“Most of the things the teachers have asked for, we’ve incorporated in amendments into that bill,” Hembree said. “They attended a rally — that’s interesting, good for them — but it’s not really helpful in crafting complicated policy.”

‘A wave at the ballot box’

Some teachers say they are wary of another rally that would pull them out of class and away from their students.

“I hope it doesn’t get to that point,” said Kelly, a 2014 finalist for teacher of the year. “Teachers actually don’t like being out. You have to put in more work to be out than in. Great teachers don’t get into education because they want to be away from their students.”

Kathy Maness, who leads the state’s largest dues-paying teachers association — the Palmetto State Teachers Association — said teachers need to turn and invite lawmakers to their classrooms, from morning to afternoon. The group does not support teacher strikes, she said.

Say to lawmakers, “ ‘Come teach my class. Do lunch duty. Do recess. Teach some more, then do bus duty,’ “ Maness said.

Teachers are desperate to bridge a “disconnect” between themselves and lawmakers, said Sherry East, head of the S.C. Education Association. She noted teachers were especially “enraged” when state schools chief Molly Spearman knocked the protest.

“I hope we can all sit down after the energy of today and do what’s right for our children and the students in South Carolina,” she said.

Otherwise, teachers on Wednesday vowed to head to the voting booth in 2020.

“If the Legislature doesn’t move, I hope the real action point isn’t a rally so much but a wave at the ballot box,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to see a walk out of schools. I want to see a walk in to ballot boxes in 2020 if education is not addressed next session.”

Staff writers Avery G. Wilks and Tom Barton contributed to this report.

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.