- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Teachers in 42 high-poverty school districts in South Carolina could get a salary boost under a one-year experiment advanced by the House.

The proposal would distribute $9.1 million to districts where at least 80 percent of students live in poverty, with amounts ranging from roughly $37,500 to $1.3 million based on student population. Rising student poverty means just over half of districts would benefit.

District officials must use their allotment for “teacher recruitment and retention” but how is up to them.

“It’s wide open - whatever they need to do to keep teachers in their district,” said Rep. Kenny Bingham, chairman of the House’s K-12 budget panel.

Possibilities he cited include performance bonuses, hiring teachers in hard-to-fill subjects such as science and even paying teachers’ moving costs.

The proposal is aimed at keeping good teachers in poor districts that can’t pay as much as their more prosperous neighbors. Legislators would then evaluate next year whether the money made a difference before making it a recurring expense, said Bingham, R-Cayce.

The chairman of the Senate’s K-12 budget panel said Tuesday he supports the idea, which the House passed unanimously last week as an amendment to its 2016-17 spending plan.

“It probably stands a good chance of staying in the budget,” said Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill.

The House budget plan would give teachers statewide a 2 percent cost-of-living increase. The additional allotment could help answer the state Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling that the state fails to provide educational opportunities in poor, rural districts that initially sued the state over funding in 1993. Legislators face a June deadline for developing a plan to fix South Carolina’s broken education system.

Teacher quality was among the inequities justices’ cited. Plaintiff districts pay the least. Filling vacancies often means hiring teachers who are inexperienced, uncertified and/or long-term substitutes who lack a college degree. Widespread teacher turnover compounds the problem, the justices wrote.

Even without the ruling, legislators must do something to help poor districts hire and keep good teachers, Hayes said.

“Lawsuit or not, it’s a real crisis in a lot of these districts,” he said.

Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said she appreciates the legislators’ efforts.

“I hope this $9 million helps reward those teachers who districts know can go to another county and make $10,000 more but are willing to make the drive because the students need them,” she said.

The House budget plan also includes $8.2 million toward a loan-forgiveness program advocated earlier this year by Gov. Nikki Haley. Students could get up to $30,000 worth of tuition loans erased if they commit to teaching eight years in a district with excessive teacher turnover. The 20 districts that currently meet the definition lost between 11 percent and 34 percent of their teachers last year.

Bingham said legislators recognized that program wasn’t enough.

“That’s great for new teachers going to a district, but what do we do for teachers already there? How are you going to retain them?” he said.

Under the House plan, districts’ share of the $9 million breaks down to $53 per student.

The largest chunk would go to Richland 1, the district for downtown Columbia - which is clearly not rural - followed by Sumter County, Darlington County, Cherokee County, and Lexington 2 (West Columbia), using the state education agency’s latest population data.

Bingham said defining a poor, rural district in a way that’s consistent statewide became difficult. Knowing it costs more to educate students living in poverty, he and his co-sponsors opted to use the 80-percent-or-higher poverty rating.

“It hits mostly poor, rural districts,” he said. “You have to treat the districts fairly.”

Last week’s House votes officially moved the budget process to the Senate, which is expected to debate its plan in late May.

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