Patrick Kelly, director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, warned in an opinion piece in the Charleston (SC) Post and Courier about the state’s teacher shortage. Teacher salaries are low, and legislators are obsessed with the idea of telling teachers what they may and may not teach. Meanwhile the state has a budget surplus, and Governor Henry McMaster will use it to lower taxes, not to raise abominably low teacher salaries or to feed the children in South Carolina who go hungry every day (about 15% of the children in the coastal counties of the state). Of course, I take issue with the headline: there’s no point trying to teach in a state that requires teachers to teach lies.

Kelly writes:

With the 2022 session of the S.C. General Assembly now more than a quarter complete, legislators have committed a significant amount of time and energy to bills that could have sweeping implications for what is taught in South Carolina classrooms as well as the very definition of what constitutes a public education.

Some of these debates address real, pressing challenges in our schools, while others are fueled by the desire of policymakers to respond to the very vocal concerns of select constituencies. However, in spite of all the time and energy dedicated to education, not enough has been accomplished to address the single problem that threatens to make all other education policy efforts moot: the state’s increasing teacher shortage.

The shortage of teachers in South Carolina has been growing steadily for years. In 2019, I wrote about how “the house is on fire” in schools due to the growing number of vacant teaching positions across the state. That year, schools had opened with 621 vacancies. This year, that number ballooned to 1,063 positions, a 71% increase. What looked like a house fire then has grown into a five-alarm inferno.

The timing of this shortage could not be worse for children. Right now, our students are facing unprecedented challenges, including increased incidents of school violence, depression and suicidal thoughts. At the same time, students are attempting to navigate the academic fallout of lost instructional time stemming from shifts to virtual learning, quarantines and student illness…

Education research universally agrees that the No. 1 in-school influence on student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. Given this fact, it is imperative to address the more than 1,000 classrooms that do not have access to any teacher at a time when students need more support than ever.

To date, though, there has been little done this legislative session to take the steps necessary to enhance educator recruitment and retention. One notable and important exception has been the advancement of a bill introduced by Sen. Stephen Goldfinch to guarantee 30 minutes of daily, unencumbered planning time for elementary and special education teachers, two groups that often go through an entire school day without a moment even to go to the restroom.

Other recently introduced bills hold promise, such as one introduced by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter to address student debt for teachers and one from Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey to provide enhanced lottery scholarships to education majors.

But these bills have yet to receive committee review, a significant problem in the rapidly advancing second year of this General Assembly. As both the legislative calendar and our teacher supply dwindle, we need action now on these bills as well as other measures that could enhance education retention — steps such as reducing class sizes, providing enhanced mentoring support for new teachers and creating meaningful career pathways to keep our best teachers in the classroom.

The Legislature should also follow the lead of S.C. Education Superintendent Molly Spearman, who called on budget writers to do “as much as (they) can” to increase teacher salaries, including raising minimum starting pay to $40,000…

As our state continues to debate what is — or is not — taught in our classrooms, we should never lose sight of the indisputable fact that nothing is taught in a classroom without a teacher. A failure to put out this growing fire in our schools will deprive an ever-increasing number of students of access to the great teacher who can spark interests and abilities into their full potential.

Patrick Kelly is director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association and has taught in S.C. schools since 2005.