By Kathy Maness, Executive Director
Palmetto State Teachers Association
As our state continues to grapple with the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, our citizens are experiencing a natural desire to “return to normal” in the facets of our daily lives. However, in the area of education, we must resist temptations to return to “normal,” as our state has too often failed to provide equitable opportunities for all students or adequate support for educators entrusted with helping students reach their full potential. Unfortunately, these issues have been exasperated by the ongoing pandemic. As a result, the future health and prosperity of our state requires more than a return to “normal” in our schools; it demands the collective and full efforts of our state to make our education system stronger than it has ever been.
This goal requires significant investments, and while it is far from perfect, Palmetto State Teachers Association believes the Executive Budget released today by Governor McMaster takes important steps toward providing our students with the educational opportunities they need and deserve.
Most significantly, PSTA applauds the Governor’s proposed expansion of 4K early childhood education. In what promises to be a tight budget year, the Governor’s proposal to invest $48 million in 4K education represents a substantial investment in the academic potential of students across the state. Our association’s legislative agenda has called on expansion of 4K access for several years due to a body of research showing that access to quality early childhood education leads to growth in student achievement throughout their K-12 educational journey. Similarly, the Governor’s proposal to invest $100 million in non-recurring funds in instructional materials will pay dividends well into the future. Currently, too many classrooms across our state are reliant on materials that are woefully out-of-date, and enactment of the Governor’s proposal would provide our teachers with appropriate and higher quality instructional resources.
In spite of these proposed investments, our association believes the Governor’s proposed budget should still do more to address the state’s teaching shortage crisis. As recently reported by the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement (CERRA), South Carolina’s schools started this school year with nearly 700 vacant teaching positions, representing a 26% increase over last year. Research consistently shows access to a quality teacher to be the single most important in-school influence on student achievement. As a result, investments in areas like instructional materials and early childhood access will never achieve their full potential until our state takes the necessary steps to enhance teacher recruitment and retention.
The Governor has taken one important step in the area of teacher recruitment by proposing increased funding for Teaching Fellows, Teacher Cadets, and ProTeam, programs with a proven track record of attracting South Carolina’s best and brightest students to the teaching profession. However, our state cannot find a way out of the teaching shortage crisis through recruitment alone, and the Governor’s budget proposals fall short of making sufficient investments in improving teacher retention. PSTA strongly supports the Governor’s proposal to unfreeze salary steps. This is something provided for in state law, and we call on the General Assembly to follow the Governor’s lead in this area.
However, this action alone is not enough to reverse growing teacher turnover rates. While PSTA understands the budget constraints of the coming year, we will continue to advocate for our state to raise teacher salaries to become more competitive with those in other states in the Southeast. As a result, we hope the General Assembly will follow Superintendent Spearman’s request for a pay raise for teachers as a step toward achieving the improved teacher compensation structure our state needs to remain competitive with neighboring states.
During a year with a tight state revenue forecast, every available source of funding should be directed toward public schools that are accessible to every student. As a result, our association strongly opposes the Governor’s proposal to direct $13.9 million in surplus lottery funds toward the creation of Education Savings Account programs that would cover tuition to private schools. Whether the funding is provided directly or indirectly, state revenues should not flow to schools that are not subject to the same accountability requirements as all other public schools. Instead of funding private schools, any excess lottery funds would be better spent on the recommendation in our legislative agenda to provide education majors with the same lottery scholarship enhancement currently available to students majoring in science and math.
The proposals announced by the Governor today provide some important steps toward building the necessary “new normal” in education, but more work is needed. Our association will advocate throughout the coming legislative session for the enactment of policies that will provide our state’s educators with the support they need and our students with the opportunities they deserve.