- Associated Press - Friday, December 18, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - State education officials agree South Carolina’s public school teachers should be paid more, but they differ on whether to start at the front or back end of teachers’ careers.

The state Education Department wants to begin by better compensating veteran teachers. Its budget proposal would ensure that all teachers, starting next school year, would receive an annual raise for experience through 23 years in the classroom.

Currently, the state-required boost stops at 22 years, and 24 of the state’s 81 districts go no further. Other districts use local property tax money to pay for additional years, creating wide disparities, even among districts in the same county.

When veteran teachers can get a job that boosts their pay without having to relocate, “you can’t blame teachers for doing that,” Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said this week. “But it’s the smaller districts that can’t afford to do it that really need those teachers.”

According to the Education Department, 20 percent of the state’s teachers see no compensation for experience past 22 years. Funding that additional year statewide would cost $6.3 million.

“We are not compensating our most experienced and seasoned teachers,” reads the agency’s budget request for 2016-17.

Maness’ group hopes that by 2021-22, the state will extend experience pay through 28 years - the number of years public employees in South Carolina must work to retire with full pension benefits.

But the independent Education Oversight Committee is not supporting the department’s proposal.

It instead suggests starting next year on the front end of teachers’ careers while working on a plan that overhauls the entire salary schedule. It recommends asking an outside group, such as the University of South Carolina’s business school, to develop a new one.

While the department’s request “may assist in retaining some of the state’s most veteran teachers, it will not address recruiting more teachers into the pipeline,” reads its recommendation, adopted earlier this week by the agency’s board.

“We don’t need to add on to the back end until we look at the whole system,” EOC Director Melanie Barton said Monday.

Salaries are particularly critical during a teacher’s first five years in the classroom, because that’s when many decide to leave the profession for a better-paying job. The low starting pay is also preventing students from pursuing the job at all, she said.

“Since the Great Recession, supply is declining. It’s taken a nosedive,” Barton said.

The state sets the minimum that districts must pay their teachers. Under the state’s 2015-16 minimum salary schedule, first-year teachers with a bachelor’s degree make $29,500. In districts that pay only the minimum, teachers with a bachelor’s degree top out at $45,400 for 22 years of experience.

“In a perfect world, we’d have both. New people coming in would definitely have a bump up,” Maness said. But in many districts, veteran teachers have “actually seen their paychecks go down due to increased cost of benefits.”

She is part of a study group legislators created in a budget clause to develop teacher salary recommendations.

Its general recommendations so far include increasing the base pay for all teachers, adding a year to the state salary schedule annually until it provides a boost through 30 years of experience and creating a “pay band” for entry-level teachers. That means teachers in their first five years, for example, could make the same salary, but the idea is to pay them more starting out, said department spokesman Ryan Brown.

The Education Department is still researching how much the recommendations would cost.

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