NEWS: Higher pay floated to remedy S.C.’s teacher shortage

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By Lindsay Street, Statehouse correspondent  |  Members of a special legislatively-appointed task force charged with staunching the exodus of teachers from South Carolina classrooms say raising teacher salaries will be vital.

While it’s not the cure-all for the complex issue, they say, higher compensation is at the top of the list for many members of the Educator Recruitment and Retention Study (ERRS) committee.  A full set of their legislative and policy remedies from the committee appointed by the General Assembly will be published later this month.

“All roads probably lead, one way or another, back to the compensation issue. We’ve got to work to improve salaries for teachers,” said Stephen W. Hefner, Lexington-Richland School District 5 superintendent. “In order to retain the teachers, we need to provide compensation incentives.”

Hefner is one of three district superintendents on the 19-member ERRS Committee, which was formed after a study showed more teachers leaving the profession and fewer S.C. higher education students embarking on teaching careers.

Not enough new teachers in the pipeline

A 2017 report by the South Carolina’s Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement (CERRA) showed 481 teacher vacancies across the state at the start of the 2016-17 school year — a growing trend that analysts say is increasing year over year. CERRA is a state-funded nonprofit that studies and reports on keeping teachers in the classroom.

The report found 12.5 percent of teachers, or nearly 6,500, from the 2015-16 school year did not return to the same position the following year. Some retired or left for personal reasons but more than 5 percent of those that left changed professions altogether. Another finding was that, during the 2015-16 academic school year, S.C. colleges graduated fewer than 1,900 students from education programs.

CERRA Executive Director Jane Turner said the shortage is more severe in areas of math, science and special education, and some districts feel the pinch more than others.

Hefner said the difference between districts is mostly due to differences in teacher pay. He said districts with strong industrial bases can typically pay their new teachers more than the state-mandated minimum salaries because of the higher amount of taxes collected there. Bedroom-community districts tend to be at a disadvantage, he said.

The shortage is acutely felt in rural districts that lack industry, said Bernadette Hampton, S.C. Education Association president and an ERRS member. She said annual pay between neighboring school districts can sometimes vary as much as $7,000 per year for the same position.

“If we don’t lessen the competition between districts when it comes to teacher salaries then we are always going to have areas that are not going to be able to attract and retain teachers,” Hampton said.

But even higher-paying, suburban districts struggle to recruit teachers.

Compensation matters

In the July issue of Diversity in Ed magazine, the Charleston County School District took out a full-page advertisement to attract teachers. On the adjacent page, a Texas school district took out a full-page ad for the same purpose. The Texas ad boldly proclaimed a $51,500 starting teacher salary. Although no mention of starting salary was given in the Charleston ad, a district spokesman said a starting position paid $36,000.

But  it’s not just Texas that pays its teachers more. South Carolina has among the lowest pay for teachers in the nation and in the Southeast, according to Hefner.

“It’s clearly documented that our pay for teachers is below the Southeastern average,” Hefner said. “That’s beginning to take its toll here.”

A first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree gets a state-minimum pay of $30,113. That same teacher, after 10 years on the job, earns a minimum of $38,243.

Hefner said the state’s low pay for teachers would have caused a shortage much sooner in the state, but the economic downturn in 2008 padded schools with staff that returned to teaching “from other callings.” Now, the effects are being felt as fewer teachers enter the profession and more are leaving for retirement or other careers, he said.

Raising teacher salaries would need the OK from lawmakers. S.C. Education Oversight Committee Executive Director Melanie Barton said raising the starting teacher salary by $2,000 would be a good start. Barton doesn’t serve on the task force, but Charleston lawyer  Neil Robinson, who chairs her board, does.

Hampton

Hampton said salaries must be competitive on a regional and national level.

In that same vein, Hampton said she’d also like to see the state-mandated annual raises to be shortened from 24 steps to 10 steps, with each step being a year of service as a S.C. public school teacher. She said reaching the highest level of salary within 10 years instead of 24 years means teachers will earn more money over time.

“Teachers wouldn’t have to work two and three jobs because they would have adequate salaries,” Hampton said.

But salary alone won’t fix the issue, committee members say.

“Salary is an issue for many folks. It’s not the only issue, but it is an issue the legislature can deal with,” Hampton said.

Other fixes needed, too, key lawmaker says

Allison

Task force member and S.C. Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, said salary is a big topic.

“(Teachers) all mention that it needed to be equal to other professions when it comes to money,” she said.

But she said other  remedies were needed.

“We’re looking at a whole gamut of things,” Allison said. Most deal with supporting teachers in the profession, including state Department of Education policies that help mentor and develop new teachers in their first five years and reducing the amount of paperwork to allow teachers to spend more time teaching, she said.

“We need to build this profession back,” Allison said. “I don’t know if there is any one silver bullet to it.”

Other members agreed that mentoring and support of teachers would be key in retaining and recruiting.

“Teachers who work in a supportive context stay in the classroom longer,” Hampton said.

In the fall, state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman called for more state funding for teacher mentoring programs to help young teachers receive support in the early, critical years of the profession. Spearman’s office did not respond to a Monday request for a comment in time for deadline for this story.

The last meeting of the task force is slated for Dec. 20. The time, location and agenda have not been released. Afterward, the committee will release its final recommendations.

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One Comment

  1. Bill Spangler says:

    I see 3 District superintendents on the committee.

    Other than the president of the SCEA, how many current or recently retired TEACHERS are on this committee. I suspect, as in most cases, teachers were given the short shrift in a discussion & report that affects their jobs.

    That is perhaps other reasons, why people don’t want to deal with having a job with so much stress, great responsibility with no power & bosses who are clueless. (In my 24+ years teaching in public school in SC, very few principles or assistant principles were worth a damn.)

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