New SC superintendent asks legislature to fund teacher raises, bonuses in next budget

South Carolina’s new school superintendent is laying out her priorities for spending more than $800 million on K-12 education in the next state budget.
Published: Feb. 6, 2023 at 7:31 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 6, 2023 at 10:15 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina’s new school superintendent is laying out her priorities for spending more than $800 million on K-12 education in the next state budget.

This year’s budget request is Republican Ellen Weaver’s first as state superintendent, after she was sworn into office last month.

It comes as the state’s educator shortage continues to worsen, with nearly 1,500 teaching jobs vacant across South Carolina at the start of this school year.

“I’m not here today to rehash the many challenges we face, but in talking to students, teachers, parents, and employers across this state, we know that the situation we face is urgent,” Weaver told members of the House Ways and Means Public Education and Special Schools Subcommittee last week.

Among the highlights of her budget request, Weaver is asking lawmakers to increase the statewide starting salary for teachers from $40,000 up to $42,500, which Gov. Henry McMaster also called for in his executive budget this year.

Not that long ago, some South Carolina teachers earned less than $30,000 a year.

“If we pass this one, which I’m pretty sure we will, up to $42,500, that’s a big increase. Hopefully this will get more young people interested in education because we sure need it,” Rep. Bill Whitmire, R – Oconee, said.

The new superintendent said she backs McMaster’s goal to raise the statewide minimum to $5,000 by 2026, the last year of both their current terms.

In line with another request from the governor’s executive budget, Weaver also wants to give every public-school teacher and bus driver in the state a retention bonus: $2,500 for teachers and $2,000 for bus drivers.

Weaver said her budget request would also give districts enough money to give every teacher a $2,500 raise across every step of the pay schedule, if districts decide to spend their money that way.

Rep. Neal Collins, R – Pickens, noted the legislature provided money last year for every district to provide a $4,000 pay increase to all teachers, but only about a third of the state’s 79 districts did that, Collins said, with 10 providing a raise of less than $2,000 and one not raising pay at all.

“Obviously not blaming anybody at the department or in the legislature, but the way that our government system is structured — and we have $800 million in requests right here, all seem fine — but at the end of the day, if it’s not implemented well or at all, it’s frustrating what we’re doing,” Collins said.

Weaver is asking lawmakers to allocate $150 million to continue school building improvements in poorer, rural districts, an initiative started by her predecessor, Molly Spearman.

As with Spearman’s approach, Weaver said they would prioritize smaller districts and schools that consolidate with each other.

“We know that many times, our rural communities simply do not have the tax base or bonding capacity to repair or replace crumbling infrastructure,” she said.

In a program new to Weaver’s tenure, she also wants to give $100 million to new “innovation incentives,” like one that would give bonuses to highly-effective teachers who work in schools with high needs.

“Teacher quality is the most important in-school factor for student success, and yet strategically compensating the very best educators to teach in the highest-needs schools is not something that is often done,” Weaver said.

The Department of Education’s budget request outlines this would start as a pilot program, with up to 125 schools receiving up to $200,000 in grants they would then pass on to their teachers as bonuses. The department says about 400 elementary schools in South Carolina are “high-need,” but it does not detail how it defines that classification.

Other allocations in Weaver’s proposed “innovation incentives” would target districts that implement “the science of reading,” a literacy-instruction method, and to create mentoring and tutoring programs.

Weaver said she also supports McMaster’s requests to allocate dollars to hire more school resource officers and to create a statewide school safety center, though both of those requests fall under other state agencies’ budgets.

“Nothing matters if our students and our educators are not safe,” Weaver said.