We've spent decades vilifying teachers. We're surprised we can't recruit more?

By SALLY HUGULEY
Posted 7/5/18

The State's recent series documented that South Carolina is facing thousands of vacant teaching jobs and very few young people willing to fill them. Statewide, there's been a 30 percent drop in college students seeking an education degree.

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We've spent decades vilifying teachers. We're surprised we can't recruit more?

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The State's recent series documented that South Carolina is facing thousands of vacant teaching jobs and very few young people willing to fill them. Statewide, there's been a 30 percent drop in college students seeking an education degree.

No surprise, considering South Carolina has the lowest average beginning teacher salary in the Southeast and fifth lowest nationally. Why enter a profession that might require a second job to make ends meet?

Besides low pay, our current generation grew up during 20 years of non-stop teacher bashing. As state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman observed, "We've had 20 years of blame it on the teacher." Why seek a job that is the constant target of blame?

South Carolina has never considered public education a valuable commodity. Its state Constitution promises only a "minimally adequate education," and the old Sunbelt strategy of "cheap land, cheap labor" is the foundation of its economic development.

There have been some progressive years. The 1984 Education Improvement Act increased teacher salaries to the Southeastern average. Since then, however, education funding has remained a low priority.

For two decades, public schools and teachers have faced legislative cheapness and bullying by politicians, out-of-state ideologues, gambling interests and businessmen. The devaluation of public education is all our current 20-somethings have known.

Three years before No Child Left Behind, South Carolina was among the first states to use standardized test scores to judge students, teachers and schools. The 1998 Education Accountability Act required yearly testing beginning in third grade and school report cards based on student scores.

Soon after, researchers at Clemson University pronounced the report card system as "inherently unjust." Why? They found the new school grading system focused solely on student test scores without factoring in poverty, long considered the foremost predictor of academic performance. Without acknowledging student poverty, the mandated report cards were not only "unjust," but a foregone conclusion.

That same year, "We be gots de wurstest skools in de United State" billboards appeared along South Carolina highways. Sponsored by the burgeoning video poker industry, gambling promoters cynically suggested video poker might be a way to better fund state education.

Eventually, video poker was struck down as illegal, but by then, thousands had seen billboards proclaiming "the wurstest skools."

About the time our current young people entered kindergarten, the state began 14 years of libertarian governors, whose approach to public school funding was private school vouchers. Starting with former Gov. Mark Sanford, national school voucher organizations flocked to South Carolina with the sole purpose of diverting public tax dollars to private schools.

Funded by deep pocket out-of-state ideologues, Statehouse lobbyists quickly scared legislators into enacting a private school voucher law. Although public money was appropriated to fund school vouchers, the law required no standardized testing, no school report cards and no teacher credentials to educate special-needs children using the voucher system.

With libertarian politicians in power, similar-thinking businessmen were appointed to state education and accountability boards. They pushed the "business model of education" with student test scores as the bottom line. Dismissing education degrees and teacher experience as worthless, they recommended using test scores to determine teacher pay raises with bonuses for top scorers.

Our current generation was choosing college majors when former state School Superintendent Mick Zais vigorously promoted teacher salaries based on student test scores and recommended using student scores to grade individual teachers. He denied teacher grades would be publicized, but his obvious contempt for educators hardly made him trustworthy.

Bracketing these two decades was the 1993 Abbeville v. South Carolina lawsuit brought on behalf of 39 poor rural districts. The suit sought equitable school funding over the constitutional "minimally adequate" standard.

For 21 years, state attorneys fought the Abbeville lawsuit until in 2014, the S.C. Supreme Court decided in favor of the plaintiff districts. The victory was short-lived. Last year, a legislatively stacked state Supreme Court overturned the Abbeville decision.

With this history, why would any 20-something think teaching a promising career? Plus, current gubernatorial and legislative candidates either ignore the issue of better beginning teacher pay or offer no specifics.

To attract new prison guards, salaries were raised. To attract beginning teachers, perhaps we should pay them better than prison guards.

Sally Huguley is a retired teacher and former legislative researcher and gubernatorial speechwriter. She can be reached at shuguley@sc.rr.com.