SC teacher shortage bills die in state legislature

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South Carolina teachers’ hopes for help from the state Legislature during an ongoing teacher shortage were dashed last week when multiple bills intended to alleviate the problem died at the end of the legislative session.

At one point, the state’s educators had reasons for hope. A year ago, the S.C. House of Representatives voted unanimously to pass the Educator Assistance Act, which, among other things, would make it less likely that a teacher who quit would ultimately have his teaching license suspended. Two other bills that would help fill teaching jobs managed to pass both the House and Senate.

But as the 2023-2024 legislative session ended at 5 p.m. Thursday, all three bills died without being passed into law. The Educator Assistance Act never came up for a vote in the Senate, and because various versions of the other two bills were voted down by both chambers in the final two weeks of the session, they failed to become law when lawmakers ran out of time to pass them. to implement the law. to reconcile their competing amendments.

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“People are very uncomfortable right now,” said Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association, as he summarized teachers’ attitudes after the bills collapsed.

The state previously reported that more than 100 Palmetto State teachers had their certification suspended for a year or more in 2023 because they left their teaching jobs before the end of a one-year contract with their school district, even though many were eager to return to teaching in the class.

At the start of the 2023-2024 school year, South Carolina school districts reported 1,613 open positions, a 9% increase from the year before, according to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement. A February 2024 update showed that a further 924 teachers had left the classroom since the start of the school year.

State Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, chair of the House Education and Public Works Committee, has pressured her colleagues in the House of Representatives three times to pass H.4280, or the Educator Assistance Act, a bill that would give teachers more protection and flexibility in their teaching. contracts.

“The teachers gave us a long list a few years ago of what was important to them,” Erickson said. “We have been talking about rewards in recent years. Beginning teacher salaries have increased by 47%, which is remarkable. What we haven’t done is red tape, things that really hurt them and don’t treat them as professionals.”

The act would have:

  • Allowed teachers to terminate their contracts within ten days of the publication of the district’s payroll, which often comes after teachers have already signed their contracts for the following year;
  • Limit the amount of time a school district has to report a violation and give the State Board of Education more flexibility in imposing suspensions;
  • Move the start date of a suspension from the date of the state board action to the day a teacher resigned, which would allow a suspended teacher to return to the classroom sooner;
  • And reduce the maximum suspension for breach of contract from one year to six months.

Erickson said the gap between when teachers are expected to sign a contract for the next year and when they find out what they will be paid is particularly troubling.

“Who signs a contract without knowing what he or she will be paid?” Erickson said. “They’re signing with only part of the equation. … The most important thing they need to do is budget for their family, and we need to give them a realistic idea of ​​what it’s going to be.”

Patrick Kelly, director of government affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said the contracts need to be addressed as the start of the school year in many districts is creeping into the summer.

“One change we are seeing is more districts starting as early as mid-July,” Kelly said. “The 10-day window could fall within 10 days of the start of classes, and that was not considered at all when it was introduced.”

Concerned about the Senate’s inaction on the bill after it passed the House of Representatives 111-0, House lawmakers on May 2 added the measure in its entirety to the text of two other education bills previously passed by the Senate: S.124 would have created a pilot. program for hiring non-certified teachers, while S.305 would have counted some prospective teachers’ prior work experience outside of education toward their certification.

Erickson said the certification process is a barrier to the profession, even if teachers aren’t suspended.

“All kinds of professionals are pursuing continuing education, but they don’t have to go through the paperwork every time,” she said. “I have received numerous messages that one of the biggest duties of assistant principals is getting staff certifications in order. They have spreadsheets of who is due for renewal and when. I would prefer to have good, background-checked staff with credentials related to what they teach, and the district and staff decide what that career development looks like.

On Wednesday, senators added their own amendments to both bills to reinsert the original language before the bills were amended by the House. The next day — the last of the session — House members voted unanimously to reject the changes in the Senate, jeopardizing the last chance for either to become law this year.

If lawmakers want to revise any of the bills when they reconvene in January, the measure would have to start the legislative process over again.

“I’m really disappointed that 305 doesn’t make it,” Kelly said. “It received unanimous support in the Senate and House of Representatives, and some teachers could make thousands of dollars from it. That would have a real impact on the daily lives of teacher families in South Carolina.”

Kelly said he hopes strong support will allow the measure to be passed relatively easily in 2025. “It shouldn’t take two years to get to the finish line,” he said. “It should be right out of the gate.”

But, he added, “it is ultimately a moot point whether school districts would act in good faith when a teacher resigns for cause. They are not required to report a teacher. That’s a district decision. If they’re just doing the right thing and if a teacher resigns for health reasons or moves to keep a family together, they don’t have to report it.”

East noted that while bills related to the teacher shortage would expire, lawmakers will continue to meet on a bill intended to address ideas lawmakers associate with critical race theory in schools, while another recently passed bill would require teachers they will notify parents if a student attempts to change their gender identity, preferred name or pronouns.

She said she thinks this shows that lawmakers’ priorities when it comes to public education are not the same as those of educators.

“What they did with the trans law makes teachers mandatory reporters, so we don’t really feel good,” she said.

Erickson said she doesn’t know why the Educator Assistance Act hasn’t made progress in the Senate this year, though she’s heard concerns from more school districts nationwide that changes could hurt their ability to recruit and retain teachers. But she said the bill incorporates a lot of feedback lawmakers have received from school administrator groups to address some of their concerns.

The lawmaker said she remains committed to passing the Educator Assistance Act during next year’s session and said she is confident the Senate will pass a version of the bill next time.

And she said she hopes “teachers will reach out and say this is really important to us,” Erickson said. “I’m not going to drop the issue.”

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Bristow Marchant covers local government, schools and communities in Lexington County for The State. He graduated from the College of Charleston in 2007. He has more than 10 years of experience in South Carolina at the Clinton Chronicle, Sumter Item and Rock Hill Herald. He joined The State in 2016. Bristow won the SC Press Association award for Best Series in 2015 and was part of The State’s award-winning election coverage in 2016.
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