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Column: A teacher walk-out in SC?

Posted: May 14, 2018 3:00 p.m.
Updated: May 15, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Teachers have generally been taken for granted for about as long as history has been recorded. Teachers are the very best of people. They want to do right by their students, regardless of circumstances. Politicians take advantage of this. They pay them poorly, underfund their classroom needs, underfund their schools and continually pile more and more standardized tests and mandates on them.

In spite of all of this, teachers persevere. Then every four years, the politicians who take advantage of their generous nature and professionalism show up at schools to get their pictures taken with them and their students and talk about the importance of education. A lot of politicians are big supporters of education at election time, but at budget time, not so much.

Not surprisingly, politicians have also made it very hard for teachers in most states to assert themselves professionally. Collective bargaining by public employees is illegal in many states, as are public employee strikes. The threat of being fired has generally served to squelch political pushback from teachers. So the treadmill continues. But during the past few months, the momentum has started to change.

Teachers in West Virginia recently staged a successful statewide walkout over pay. I was amused during the strike when I saw a news story that featured a West Virginia business owner talking about the disruption to his business caused by the strike. This gentleman was quite upset that his employees were not at work because they had to stay at home with their children with the schools closed. Amazing how folks get worked up when their “babysitting service” gets shut down.

Shortly after the walkout in West Virginia, similar actions took place in Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona. Rumblings are also being heard in North Carolina and Mississippi. (Interestingly, these are all states, like South Carolina, that have spent the last 10 years de-investing in education.) When teachers from these states were interviewed about their grievances, they talked about pay for sure. But they also talked about funding for classrooms and needed programs to serve their students.

A number of people have asked me if something like this could happen in South Carolina. I think it could. I believe there are several factors that could lead things in this direction.

First of all, teacher pay in South Carolina is, to say the least, inadequate. Pay in neighboring southeastern states like Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida is as much as $6,000 higher. This is particularly problematic as we are now competing with these same states for out-of-state candidates because our colleges and universities are not producing anywhere near the number of teachers we need and will need in the future. The pay issue is a festering one, especially given the unhealthy obsession in our state with bubble tests, not to mention the intrusive legislative mandates constantly being dumped on schools.

Then there is funding for classrooms and programs. In South Carolina, per-student funding is about $530 below what the law requires, and has been well below the legal requirement for almost 10 years. (We estimate that Kershaw County has lost about $80 million -- yes, $80 million -- in state funding during this period.) This means that teachers are lacking instructional materials and other critical classroom needs, and schools and districts are lacking programs and services they need to meet the wide range of needs of an increasingly diverse student population. (That said, there is always state money for more bubble tests and superfluous stuff like “student engagement” surveys. Go figure.)

Teachers keep spending money from their own pockets and communities keep fundraising to try to fill the void. Unfortunately, the void keeps getting larger and bake sales aren’t going to fix it. Frustration on the part of teachers who want to do their best by their students keeps building. A tipping point is approaching, I think, if this trend continues in our state.

Finally, the mind set of teachers about job actions is changing. Teachers who started their careers 20-plus years ago might be more likely see a job action as betraying their students. I think the younger generation is more likely to reach a point that they will be willing to draw a line in the sand because of their students and because politicians aren’t listening. Further, as was the case in Oklahoma in particular, a great deal was organized on social media. The existence of a union or other professional organization is not essential to organizing a walkout.

Back when there was a glut of teachers, the threat of firing might have prevented teachers from standing up. The reality now is that mass firings aren’t practical or feasible because the jobs out there now can’t be filled. It’s also pretty evident that disruption of schools disrupts commerce. The ill-conceived notion that views schools as merely child care facilities is gaining more traction with some persons, making schools more critical in their economic world than ever before. Teachers have some leverage that they haven’t had in the past, and I see them becoming more inclined to use it because they’re tired of platitudes.

I’m not saying that teachers will walk out in South Carolina. But I do see the storm clouds gathering. Candidates for governor and superintendent of education should be able to explain both how they both plan to try to prevent this kind of meltdown and how they will handle it if it happens.

Unfortunately, in our state, we’re very good at closing the barn door after the horses have escaped.

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