The South Carolina Legislature convened Tuesday, beginning a session sure to be filled with a variety of issues.
Health care, tax reform, pension reform and how to handle the state’s aging population are among the many topics to be addressed. But one should stand out above the rest: education.
Education funding reform and teacher pay and recruitment dominated the discussion Thursday at a legislative workshop for the media. The bipartisan panel from around the state, representing both the House and Senate, engaged in a lively discussion about the issues surrounding education.
Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, cut to heart of the debate when she said, “A qualified teacher in every classroom, if there is a silver bullet, that’s going to be it.”
Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree, R-Horry, agreed.
“We need to raise the profession up,” he said. “A second- or third-grade teacher is more important than a college professor. I think we’ve got it a little bit reversed.”
Some panelists suggested that raises across the board for all state employees should take precedence, but taking care of the people who teach our students should be the top priority.
As Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, put it: “Young people are not looking at going into a profession where they can’t take care of their families.”
Gov. Henry McMaster also is on board for giving teachers a pay raise: he wants to earmark $211 million to give teachers a $3,000 pay raise.
South Carolina is making progress on another key component of education: reaching children at an earlier age. McMaster also has put forth a $53 million proposal that would expand pre-kindergarten for low-income 4-year-olds to all school districts in the state.
Like attracting qualified teachers, getting an early start on education can only help students as they progress through the school system. Other aspects of the education system that the panel touched on including reducing classroom sizes and cutting down on standardized testing.
South Carolina has been blessed with a windfall of nearly $2 billion in extra revenue, according to economists, for the budget year that starts in July. That should help lawmakers make some headway on education issues, although every state agency will likely want a piece of the revenue pie.
Improving South Carolina’s education system is not an overnight fix. Raising teacher pay and expanding pre-k programs are a good start. But as Sen. Ross Turner, R-Greenville, said, “I think in the end we’ll improve South Carolina education a good deal, but it’s going to take three or four bills to get us there.”
Let’s hope that the 2020 legislative session is the start of something truly big.