Tuesday, February 22, 2011

2011: The year that South Carolina lawmakers broke faith with teachers, and the band played on

When teachers enter their career in the classroom, they face innumerable unknowns. Will they last 30 years? Will those years be happy and productive? Will their retirement fund be solvent when they reach the end? Will their stock of copy paper last the semester, and will hand sanitizer kill all the viruses that children bring to school?

One thing that teachers have counted on for years -- generations, in most states -- is a salary schedule. Though teacher salaries aren't spectacular by any stretch (aren't even adequate in many, many, many places), it reassures teachers to be able to look up the salary schedule and plan ahead, based on what their base contract salary will be next year, and the year after, and so on. It's this certainty that has pushed many teachers to invest in their careers, earning higher degrees and additional credentials, in order to earn pay more commensurate to their professional skills.

God knows, despite the low salaries, it's a blessing to be able to refer to the salary schedule from time to time. Over the years, lawmakers have made great promises to educators: Accept piteous salaries in exchange for greater state investment in your state health insurance, and in your retirement plan. That sleight-of-hand went the way of smoke during the past couple of decades, as legislators chiseled away at the state health plan and forced educators to pay more for less of it.

Our electeds perceive that they gain little from affording the state's education professionals the little security that comes in having the salary schedule printed in black-and-white. As noted last week, they're now considered a plan to eliminate that schedule and replace it with a yet-undefined "performance pay" model. Or, as others call it, "pay-for-test-scores," or "pay-for-good-luck."

The principled response to such a foul offer is, No. Until lawmakers fully fund the needs of traditional public schools -- and do so for twelve consecutive years, the length of one child's journey through the system -- and THEN weigh and measure the progress, then there's no reason to talk about alternatives. Until that happens, any alternative on the table is a dodge, a way around honoring prior commitments.

Now there's a new twist. Finding themselves faced with an iceberg, dead-ahead, one group of teachers asked last week to be allowed to help organize the deck chairs and take up instruments in the Titanic band.

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The amount South Carolina teachers get paid, and what their salaries are based on is the subject of a new bill making its way through the legislature.

Teachers would help create a pay-for-performance system that would determine their salaries under the bill approved Thursday by the House budget-writing committee.

The provision would direct the state Education Department to form a committee of teachers to come up with a compensation plan by Dec. 1.

The initial bill left the plan to the agency.

Superintendent Mick Zais opposes the change. His spokesman said Zais was elected to do a job and is concerned about being tied to a plan he doesn't like. Zais pledged to allow teachers and principals to make suggestions to his plan.

Kathy Maness of the Palmetto State Teachers Association pushed for the amendment. She said it's vital that teachers be part of such a drastic change to their livelihoods.

Here's hoping others among South Carolina's educators will take to the wheel-house instead and pull hard to starboard.

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