Time for change? The potential impact two bills could have on students and teachers

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South Carolina is looking at its largest education reform effort in 35 years. Graphic by Stephanie Orr.

If passed, twin bills in the South Carolina House of Representatives and the Senate would be the state’s largest education reform since Gov. Richard Riley’s 1984 Education Improvement Act.

The bills lay out changes that range from eliminating some standardized tests to creating a “Zero to Twenty Committee” to analyze the state’s education to workforce pipeline.

But educators showed up in force at a hearing on the House version of the bill on Feb. 12 — a hearing that lasted more than four hours — largely to decry the bill’s proposals.

As legislators work on the massive, 80-page-plus legislation, tension is rising among educators, who’ve said they aren’t afraid to follow in the steps of teachers in West Virginia and Los Angeles and simply walk out of their classrooms.

Teachers in states across the country have walked out of classrooms in protest over low pay and large class sizes, among other concerns, in the last year.

But Paige Steele, a teacher and board member for education advocacy group SC for Ed, said a walkout is what the organization is trying to avoid.

“We’re trying to prevent something like that, which is why we’re really grateful for all the conversations we’re having,” Steele said. “Honestly, it’s not off the table, but it’s definitely something we’re trying to prevent.”

‘A working document’

The House and Senate bills, filed on Jan. 24, introduce dozens of sweeping changes that even education officials aren’t entirely sure how some of them would look in practice.

“How they choose to implement and interpret these changes is critical,” said Teri Brinkman, spokesperson for Greenville County Schools.

Julie Horton, coordinator of government relations with Greenville County Schools, said the district appreciates the state looking into education reform and how amenable legislators have been to receiving feedback.

“The good thing is the state of South Carolina has decided that it’s time to look at education holistically,” Horton said.

A Senate education subcommittee has already recommended changes to a section of the bill addressing board ethics.

“The bill today isn’t the same as it was yesterday,” Brinkman said.

Rep. Rita Allison, R-Spartanburg, said it will be amended like every piece of legislation that goes through the committee process.

The key, she said, is getting the conversation started.

“The document is a working document both in the House and the Senate,” Allison, who is a co-sponsor of the bill, said. “But it is a piece of work [intended] to start the conversation and to see where we were.”

But 61 people — primarily teachers — spoke critically of the bill during the Feb. 12 hearing on the House version, and SC for Ed has encouraged teachers to reach out to representatives who’ve signed on as co-sponsors.

Steele said she’s glad education reform is being discussed and that teachers are eager to come to the table to discuss it, but she wishes they had been involved before the bill was introduced.

“Having the discussions about education have been really beneficial,” Steele said. “I just think that if they had educator input on the front-end, it wouldn’t seem as if we were blindsided.”

Since the Legislature is operating on a two-year session, the bill can be carried over to next year if it doesn’t pass this year.

Here is a summary of most of H.3759’s major proposals, with updated amendments from a Feb. 20 House subcommittee meeting:

Create a “Student Bill of Rights” that outlines what students should expect from their education systems, to include a safe environment and well-maintained schools.

An amendment to the bill also added a “Teacher Bill of Rights.”

Form a “Zero to Twenty Committee” that would consist of ten members appointed by the governor and leadership in the Legislature. Each member’s background must be in early childhood education, K‑12 education, higher education, workforce development, or economic development. The goal of the committee would be to monitor the state education and workforce pipeline, make benchmarks regarding student proficiency on various standardized tests and student educational attainment, and recommend changes to the General Assembly and governor.

Allison said the committee would not have any authority and would primarily be in place to monitor and report back to the General Assembly on issues that would help put students on the path to their desired careers.

Nonetheless, teachers and school district administrators have expressed concerns that the committee would add another layer of bureaucracy.

Steele said one of the biggest issues with the committee proposal is not requiring members to be educators.

An amendment to the bill would require two members to be “highly effective” past or present educators.

Have a student serve on the state’s board of education for two-year terms in an advisory role.

An amendment reduces the term to one year and adds a one-year term for the South Carolina Teacher of the Year in an advisory role.

Expand computer science offerings by requiring all high schools to offer at least one rigorous computer science course and requiring a cyclical review of computer science standards for each grade level.

Schools would have to show their computer science offerings on their annual report cards.

Eliminate standardized social studies tests given to students in grades three through eight, as well as the end-of-course social studies tests given to high school students.

Steele said teachers would like to see more assessments that aren’t federally mandated eliminated, but with assurances that instruction in those subjects won’t be minimized.

An amendment to the bill also eliminates a standardized science assessment given to eighth-graders that is not federally mandated. The amendment also clarified that the high school U.S. History end-of-course would also be eliminated.

Require students to take a math or computer science class and an English language arts class their senior year in order to receive the Palmetto Fellows or LIFE scholarships.

Make it harder for third-grade students to be exempt from the Read to Succeed Act’s retention requirement.

An amendment deleted a section of the bill that eliminated parents’ ability to appeal the decision.

Require early childhood, elementary, and special education teacher candidates to pass a rigorous test on reading instruction. It also would require the Commission on Higher Education to analyze the effectiveness of teacher education programs at universities in the state.

Create a uniform system of dual-enrollment college classes for high school students that will transfer to each four-year and two-year institution in the state. This would also bar institutions from entering into their own articulation agreements with individual schools.

Ban colleges from offering remedial math and English classes. This would force students who need remedial math and English classes to take them at their high schools.

An amendment would let students take the remedial courses at technical colleges but requires high schools to pay for the remedial classes within one year of students’ graduation.

Require technical colleges to have minimum admission scores. This would get rid of the current open admissions rule for technical colleges in the state.

Raise the minimum starting salary of teachers to $35,000 and have the state Department of Education look into replacing the current salary schedule with between five and nine career bands.

An amendment to the bill eliminated a section that required the state department to come up with a way for teachers to advance to each salary band because of concerns it would turn into a merit-based pay scale.

Full-time, certified teachers who have five years of experience would receive free in-state college tuition for their children if they teach at a school that received an “Unsatisfactory” rating for three of the previous four years. They must be teaching while their children are in college.

The proposal doesn’t stipulate whether the tuition would also be granted to teachers who already taught at the school or just to new, incoming teachers.

Require schools with “Unsatisfactory” ratings for three of the last four years to be closed, reconstituted with new leadership, or turned into a charter school. The state superintendent would choose one of the options.

It’s unclear how this would affect the previous provision that teachers at these schools receive free tuition for their children.

An amendment eliminates a requirement that all staff be terminated.

Require the state superintendent to declare a state of emergency in districts where most students attend a school that is “Below Average” or “Unsatisfactory.” The state superintendent must then take over and have an external committee review all aspects of district management. A district in a state of emergency for four years will have its schools either transferred to another district or turned into charter schools.

Consolidate districts with fewer than 1,000 students with another district in the same county.

It’s unclear how this proposal would affect McCormick County School District, which has fewer than 1,000 students and is the only district in the county.

Allow local school boards to require additional credits for high school diplomas.

Steele said teachers have concerns over how colleges would handle the varying number of credits students have and how this would be reflected on the statewide report cards.

Bar anyone with relatives in administration in a local district from serving on the school board — districts with fewer than 3,000 students can petition the state board to waive this rule.

Allow the governor to remove school board members for fraud, misappropriation of funds, nepotism, or any election/procurement law violations.

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