This commentary originally appears in the Post and Courier.
Last week, a group of nearly 40 educators, led by the nonpartisan grassroots organization SC for Ed, traveled to the state Capitol to raise their voices and to communicate an urgent message: Teachers in South Carolina are at a breaking point, and the Legislature cannot continue to hold the future of our children in peril by ignoring the issue.
I was one of those teachers, and am now quoted as saying, “we’re darn close to a walkout.” I neither chose those words lightly, nor intend for them to be a threat. Rather, I wish to express how serious the situation has become, and how teachers feel that things are getting worse, not better.
Teachers are beyond frustrated and cannot wait for another year to go by without action regarding substantial salary increases, protections against increasing demands and the resources necessary to educate children. Our elected officials must understand why drastic and expedient measures are needed to stop the exodus of teachers from classrooms.
Perhaps it is worthwhile to remind ourselves of the situation we find ourselves in and how we got here. South Carolina consistently comes in near the bottom in state education rankings, even judged as dead last in 2017 by U.S. News & World Report. This should come as no surprise when the Legislature consistently refuses to fully fund education at the very levels it established per state law.
Since 2010, the state has underfunded public education by $4.4 billion, and education spending in South Carolina is about 12 percent below its pre-2008 education funding levels. As part of this general lack of funding, teacher salaries continue to languish behind the Southeast average, and with ever-increasing demands such as constant testing, expensive certification, unpaid duties and shrinking benefits, many in South Carolina are simply leaving. In fact, almost 5,000 teachers said adios to education altogether last year in South Carolina.
As striking as these numbers are I feel it necessary to share rather personal insights into the financial situation of teachers today. I have been teaching for nearly 11 years, the last four in South Carolina. I have a master’s degree in secondary education and am working on a Ph.D. in social foundations of education at USC. I have devoted my professional career to education, serving on numerous statewide committees and presenting at state and national conferences, all the while teaching social studies, wiping tears and passing out Band-Aids to middle schoolers. I am really good at what I do and take the responsibilities of this profession seriously. However, as much passion I have for my job as a classroom teacher, I find it increasingly challenging to make it as a teacher in South Carolina.
For example, the state’s inadequate health care plan, in combination with my relatively low salary, make for a horrendous financial situation. Over the past few months, between my Type 1 diabetes and the birth of our second daughter, my family has medical bills totaling more than $3,000. Like so many other teachers these medical bills are in concert with heavy student loans and personal contributions to materials for my classroom. In total, my bills of late add up to more than my take-home pay.
In an effort to pay down these bills my wife (also a teacher) and I have second, even third, jobs. My wife is a fitness instructor. I teach classes at USC. This cuts down on family time and also impacts my preparation and presence each day with my sixth- and seventh-grade students. My story is not an outlier, and the reality of teachers leaving due to financial circumstances and job stressors results in a vicious cycle. The fewer teachers there are in the classroom, the more demanding the job of a teacher becomes. Class sizes are increasing, substitutes are harder to find, and less support staff leads to many more meetings and paperwork.
Like many other teachers across the state, I find myself considering: Should I continue teaching in K-12 schools? How can I keep doing this at the expense of my financial, emotional and physical health and that of my family? How can I afford to be a teacher in South Carolina?
Let’s not fool ourselves. South Carolina is in the midst of a walkout. Teachers are already leaving classrooms in droves and not coming back. There is a clear way to reverse these trends, and I call on the public of South Carolina to support schools by urging legislators to fully fund education, increase teacher pay, and remove the burdensome barriers that impact professional autonomy.