As Vacancies Exceed 1,600, Proposal Requires SC Legislators to Substitute Teach

Proposal would require legislators to spend at least 5 days teaching or volunteering in K-12 schools to learn first-hand what teachers face.

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COLUMBIA — As South Carolina schools continue to grapple with teacher shortages, one legislator is calling for fellow lawmakers to spend more time inside schools.

Rep. Jermaine Johnson, D-Hopkins, said he will introduce a bill next month that would require legislators to substitute teach or volunteer at K-12 schools at least five times a year to see first-hand the problems plaguing teachers and students.

Chief among those is an ongoing shortage of teachers. South Carolina schools started the school year with nearly 1,400 teaching vacancies plus more than 200 jobs unfilled for librarians, counselors, psychologists and speech therapists. That’s a 9% increase from the year before and an all-time high, according to the supply-and-demand report released Monday by the state Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention & Advancement.

“Things are continuing to get worse,” said Patrick Kelly, a lobbyist for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, a teachers’ advocacy group. “I mean, 1,600 vacant positions is an absolutely staggering number.”

Bringing 170 legislators into schools five times a year wouldn’t fill those vacancies. But it would at least show that lawmakers are paying attention, said Kelly, who also teaches U.S. history at Blythewood High School in Richland Two.

“This is not going to solve the teacher shortage. It won’t even solve the substitute teacher shortage in this state,” Kelly said. “But it certainly has symbolic value.”

The point isn’t to solve anything, Johnson said.

And he recognizes his proposal stands little chance. He will push to at least get a hearing.

He wants to spark conversation about what really happens in schools.

“We’ve seen lawmakers come out and say they support teachers, and they want us to do what’s best for teachers. They want to invest in students. They care about students,” said Johnson, who sits on the House Education Committee. “But none of them are actually in the school.”

Johnson decided to lead by example. The father of three started substituting in August in Richland County School District One, which includes schools in downtown Columbia. He noticed things he wouldn’t have otherwise, he said, and he wants other lawmakers to have the same experience.

For example, Johnson said he realized teachers of children with disabilities have more responsibilities but receive the same pay as their colleagues who aren’t in special education classrooms.

In South Carolina, teachers are paid according to their years of experience in the classroom and their degree. The state sets the floor for every step. Most districts pay more by supplementing state aid with local property taxes. This year, the state-allowed minimum salary for first-year teachers with a bachelor’s degree is $42,500 — a $10,500 increase since 2018.

Johnson proposes increasing the minimum starting salary for special education teachers to $52,000.

Putting lawmakers in schools to see the normal routines could go a long way in helping them understand the challenges teachers face, said Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association.

“There is power in seeing what happens in a day-to-day school day,” said East, who is also a Rock Hill science teacher.

As far as actually filling the growing number of vacancies, pay is a major issue, East and Kelly said.

The state Department of Education is asking for $136 million in next year’s budget to raise teacher salaries by $1,500, bringing the first-year minimum to $44,000, according to state budget documents.

Last year, legislators gave school districts enough money to increase teacher salaries by $2,500, though how much of a raise teachers saw depended on the district. Gov. Henry McMaster has called for all teachers to be making at least $50,000 by 2026.

On top of the $2,500 boost in the salary steps, the education department is requesting $15 million to give signing bonuses to teachers in elementary, middle and special education classrooms, as well as teachers working at high-poverty schools.

Plus, the department is looking for $5 million to try out a program that would pay teachers in struggling schools and hard-to-fill subjects more when their students do better. The money would hinge on data showing student progress while learning from that teacher. Superintendent Ellen Weaver sought $25 million for the idea this year, but that request wasn’t funded.

The budget documents did not include specifics on how much more teachers could earn or how they’d qualify, and an agency spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“While no educator answers the calling to become an educator solely for financial gain, we must better align our compensation opportunities to attract, retain and recognize those who succeed in the hardest roles,” the budget request reads.

But pay is only part of the problem, Kelly and East said.

Teachers told a state task force last year they had too many duties, not enough time to accomplish them, a lack of respect and students acting out.

While legislation can’t fix all those issues, there are steps lawmakers could take to help, Kelly and East said.

For example, Kelly pointed to the task force’s recommendation that the Legislature fund a career ladder that would allow teachers to advance in their careers without needing to become administrators. And East suggested establishing alternative schools to help support students in elementary grades who lash out at their teachers.

Still, getting legislators in schools is a good start, both teachers said.

“Any policy that increases the number of caring, dedicated adults in schools is a positive in my book,” Kelly said.

SC Daily Gazette is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. SC Daily Gazette maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Seanna Adcox for questions: info@scdailygazette.com. Follow SC Daily Gazette on Facebook and Twitter.

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