The coronavirus pandemic could benefit group’s efforts to overhaul SC’s education system

May 1 marks one year since thousands of teachers rallied in the state’s capital to demand change.

VIDEO: Pushing for education reform amidst COVID-19 pandemic

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The coronavirus shutdown may prove itself to be beneficial to education reform efforts in the Palmetto State; however, the pandemic’s effects have not been minimal.

May 1, 2020, marked one year since thousands of teachers rallied in the state’s capital to demand change, and Ellis said early projections showed the group’s 2020 rally was set to be even larger.

“We were really excited about that momentum, then COVID-19 stepped up and said not today,” SC for Ed founder Lisa Ellis said.

However, the March 24th event had to be cancelled because of the COVID crisis. It was the next planned step in SC for Ed’s efforts to stop the passage of an education overhaul bill the group has vehemently opposed.

“While our voices are out there, and we’re talking, we’re not necessarily being heard. That continues to be a place of frustration,” Ellis said.

SC for Ed members said the legislation did not address class size reduction nor a Teacher Bill of Rights. The group also criticized lawmakers’ reluctance to substantially increase the base student cost to fully fund schools.

“It was like a freight train, and we were trying every sort of mechanism we knew to stop it,” Ellis said. “What we’ve said from the get to is that one or two things in a 65 page or 75 page bill that will be helpful to teachers does not negate the other things that will harm students.”

Ellis said the coronavirus shutdown could be an opportunity to convince lawmakers to abandon an all-encompassing approach and instead consider smaller measures focused on one subject.

“That’s really the hope. They keep saying it’s not officially dead. We keep hoping it ends up being dead because it just this would really help if we could write legislation that took on each key piece,” Ellis said.

Meanwhile, South Carolina schools have been ordered to remain closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year. Ellis believes the closures could be an advantage for education reform.

“I think there’s been a greater respect for teachers and the amount of time and effort they’ve put into just doing their job and doing their job to the best of their ability,” Ellis said. “It is upended the idea that this is the way we’ve always done it. So, you look at some of the laws the general assembly had to waive for this year, things like seat time for high school credit requirements and testing...that’s been another great thing we can look at in the future and say well do we really need these tests for these accountability reasons. Is there another way that we can do this?”

Ellis hopes lawmakers are also paying attention to the inequalities that have been revealed within the state’s education system because of the coronavirus shutdown.

“These students have it great in this one district, but one district over it’s not as great because they don’t have the resources they need,” Ellis described. “Just because the law has been that way for 50-75 years, doesn’t mean it still makes sense today, and let’s get those laws changed so students really can have a great educational experience.”

On the other side of this crisis, SC for Ed may find new support from followers they once struggled to reach.

“Parents are now having to facilitate the learning, instead of it being trusted to the teacher. Our hope is that as we continue to branch out, that we can sit there and build these partnerships with parents who are willing to support what we are trying to do,” Ellis said. “We also are really feeling for local businesses because, when you’re talking about the economic impact, it’s the local businesses that are carrying the weight of educational funding. It’s not the big industries. We’re hoping that sort of opens the door for those conversations. How can we make funding more equitable and it’s not so much focused on these local businesses that are struggling so much right now. Then, how can we get parents and grandparents and families on board to support teachers. So, it’s much more of a relationship where we are all working together to help the student be successful.”

SC for Ed members share many of the same budget concerns school district leaders are starting to address in the wake of lost revenues. Predictions are bleak at best, and many districts are already grappling over budget deficits that could reach into the tens of millions.

“Our concern was that the first place school districts would look to cut spending, if they needed to, was teacher salaries and support staff salaries and those positions. But those should be last place that they look,” Ellis said. “What we have stated as an organization is that we understand we are moving into critical, financial times, and well aware of that. But please, make sure that as a school district or as a local community, you know county council determining funding, that you are doing so in a way that protects teachers and school based staff as much as you can.”

SC for Ed also urged districts to not consider increasing class sizes to balance their budgets.

“Class sizes are already too big across the state, and all that does is lead to a worse situation and potentially an even greater teacher shortage,” Ellis said.

Through a Live 5 Investigation, we found thousands of teachers left their positions this last school year.

Every year, CERRA produces an Educator Supply and Demand Report. It essentially tracks how many teachers have left the profession and why.

According to the CERRA report, 6,650 teachers left their positions during or after the 2018-2019 school year. The report states 40% of teachers who left did so for "personal/family" reasons as reported by districts, and 36% of teachers left within the first five years of their profession.

What remains uncertain for now is what the next school year will be like. Governor Henry McMaster and Superintendent Molly Spearman have organized task forces to figure out how the state’s education system will proceed for this fall.

“It’s really going to be interesting to see how that plan happens because it can’t be a one size fits all. It just won’t work,” Ellis said. “The number one thing is just making sure that everybody that comes into the school is healthy and safe, and we’re not worried about it coming back.”

Ellis said SC for Ed is not wasting any time to prepare for their next education reform efforts.

Starting Friday, the organization shifted its focus to the 2020 November election.

Leaders will host question and answer sessions with candidates’ vying for open seats in the statehouse. It’s an initiative to educate SC for Ed’s members about which candidates may support the organization’s policy reform efforts.

“We are trying to get those out and scheduled out for this month of May leading up to the primaries in June,” Ellis said.

Leaders intend to use the next few months to reexamine SC for Ed’s legislative agenda and eventually start writing their own legislation to take to the general assembly.

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