teachers protect

Teachers protesting for higher pay in the West Virginia capitol during a statewide school closure in early March.

Teachers are revolting across the country following years of stagnant wages, rising insurance costs, increasing demands on their profession and cuts to public education.

Could South Carolina, where teachers are grappling with all of these same issues, be the next battleground?

"It’s the kind of thing where I’d say it’s unlikely, but I would have said it’s unlikely if I was living in West Virginia or Oklahoma six weeks ago," said Kerry Taylor, a labor historian at The Citadel.

"We’re seeing teachers across the country and they’ve just reached their breaking point and I think South Carolina teachers ... they're not different and they're experiencing the same kinds of contradictions," Taylor said.

Nationally, a wave is building:

In West Virginia, teachers shut down the state's public schools for nearly two weeks last month until lawmakers agreed to give them a 5 percent pay raise.

In Oklahoma, thousands of teachers walked off their jobs and stormed the state Capitol last week to demand higher wages and more funding for local schools. Their protest is ongoing.

In Kentucky, teachers flooded their own Capitol on April 2 to protest cuts to the state's education budget and changes to the state pension system.

And in Arizona, teachers are contemplating a statewide strike of their own.

Jody Stallings, a Mount Pleasant middle school teacher and director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance, argues that teachers are already striking in South Carolina — permanently, "either by leaving the classroom or not signing up to go into the classroom."

South Carolina faces an acute teacher shortage that's only getting worse. About 6,700 teachers left their positions at the end of the 2016-17 school year, according to the state's Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement.

While more than a quarter of these teachers moved on to other school districts, most of them — about 4,900 — no longer teach in any public school.

Meanwhile, data from the Commission on Higher Education shows the state's colleges and universities have witnessed a 30 percent drop in the number of their graduates eligible for teacher certification in just four years.

Most teachers in South Carolina will tell you they didn't go into the profession for the money. But in annual surveys about why teachers leave the classroom, low pay consistently ranks as one of the top reasons, along with lack of support and an overload of assessments and accountability.

State rankings from the National Education Association show South Carolina teacher salaries have been falling behind in recent years. The state’s average starting salary dropped from 39th nationally in 2014, to 45th in 2015 and 47th in 2016.

And thanks in part to droves of teachers quitting the profession early in their careers, South Carolina’s average teacher salary rose back to 40th in the nation by 2017. According to the most recent available data from the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, the average teacher salary in South Carolina is $48,769, which lags behind several nearby states, including Georgia, Virginia and Kentucky.

Teachers do not have collective bargaining rights in South Carolina, and the closest thing they have to a union is the S.C. Education Association, a state affiliate of the NEA.

Bernadette Hampton, president of the SCEA, got into advocacy at the state level four years ago after 21 years teaching math at her alma mater Battery Creek High in Beaufort County.

Hampton said she is heartened when teachers and advocates like her get a seat at the table during major discussions, like the one that produced a possible $2,000 statewide salary hike in a Senate committee recently.

She did not say that teachers were close to striking in South Carolina, but if they were, she said they would need the support of families and other public employees to be successful.

For now, she said she plans to keep working within the system rather than encouraging teachers to walk out of it.

"Teachers cannot afford to go into our classrooms and close our doors because what we teach, when we teach, how long we teach are all decided by someone outside of our profession," Hampton said.

Along with the salary hike, the SCEA has recommended the state reduce the number of annual "step" increases necessary to attain the maximum salary level, effectively increasing the earning potential for teachers over the course of their careers.

State lawmakers are considering a recommendation by the S.C. Department of Education as part of their budget negotiations to increase the teacher pay scale by 2 percent at the start of the next fiscal year, their first across-the-board pay bump in two years.

This proposal would raise the minimum first-year teacher salary from $30,113 to $32,000 statewide.

"A lot of the issues that I think have led to these strikes, if you will, we’re already working on addressing, which I think is a very positive thing," said Ryan Brown, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

"I don’t think we can go sit and rest on our laurels," he added. "I think we still have a ways to go. Even if this pay increase passes, we want to be at or above the Southeastern average for teacher salary and we’re slightly below that."

Salary is only part of the picture. For example, when the Charleston Teacher Alliance surveyed about 600 teachers in the Charleston County School District this past winter, nearly 46 percent complained about the district's new progressive discipline plan, which the board adopted in order to reduce unnecessary suspensions and expulsions, and ensure students are punished consistently across all schools.

Stallings said the progressive discipline plan has forced teachers to prioritize keeping disruptive students in the classroom at the expense of their well-behaved peers.

"We’ve got all these shortages in the state and I think it’s the direct result more of conditions (rather) than salary," Stallings said. "Salary is a big deal; there’s no question about it. When I talk to teachers, it’s also classroom conditions, it’s discipline, it’s benefits, healthcare and retirement."

"Eventually," he added, "you’re going to get to the point where you just have nobody who will want to do the job at any cost."

Like many Southern states, South Carolina has lured employers and industry in part by guaranteeing a low-paid workforce. State laws are written to hamstring labor unions, and most employers have the power to fire workers without giving any justification under “at-will” employment regulations.

Labor strikes and agitation are rare but not unheard of in South Carolina, though. African-American women led a five-month strike at the American Tobacco Company Cigar Factory in Charleston in 1945-46 seeking higher wages, better working conditions and fair treatment of women and minorities. The Charleston Hospital Workers’ Strike of 1969 was considered one of the last great protests of the Civil Rights era.

South Carolina workers have gone on strike since then, but rarely on a scale that filled the streets. South Carolina independent truckers and AT&T employees joined national strikes in 1983. Textile workers went on strike at RM Industrial Products in North Charleston the same year. Georgetown steelworkers went on strike in 1983 and 1986.

More recently, drivers on the Charleston-area CARTA bus system voted to authorize a strike in 2012 but ultimately struck a deal to avert a service stoppage.

South Carolina law does not explicitly forbid public employees from striking but a 2000 state court ruling interpreted common law to say the practice was forbidden because public employees are prohibited from collective bargaining.

That wouldn't matter, Taylor said, if enough teachers are fed up.

"If there’s enough unity and enough momentum behind the strikers, the state is basically forced to negotiate," Taylor said. "They don't really have another choice."