S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, left, speaks during the Darlington County School District Education Forum on Nov. 1. Other panelists included Sen. Gerald Malloy, Rep. Robert Williams, S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, S.C. Education Oversight Committee Interim Executive Director Rainey Knight, Darlington County Suuperintendent of Education Tim Newman and Darlington County Board of Education Chairman Warren Jeffords.

DARLINGTON, S.C. — A panel of state lawmakers and state and local education officials encouraged Darlington County public school teachers Friday make their voices heard on education issues, specifically a comprehensive education reform bill that has already passed the House and is pending in the Senate.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville; Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville; and Rep. Robert Williams, D-Darlington; were among panelists discussing education issues at the Darlington County School District Teacher Forum’s 2019 Education Forum. They were joined by state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman; Dr. Rainey Knight, interim executive director of the S.C. Education Oversight Committee and former Darlington County superintendent of education; Dr. Tim Newman, current Darlington County superintendent of education; and Darlington County Board of Education Chairman Warren Jeffords.

Lucas, who filed the reform bill in the House in January, said the measure is a response to information gathered from around the state since 2016 and is aimed at improving the state’s education system. He said much of that information came from teachers.

He said that contrary to what some have claimed, lawmakers in the House put much emphasis on getting opinions from teachers about the bill and other education issues.

One of the questions posed to the panel dealt with how and to what extent policy makers solicit opinions from the state’s public school teachers in making decisions that affect public education.

Lucas said he was among a group of lawmakers who spent five days touring the state talking to district Teachers of the Year about their views and their colleagues’ views on education matters. “We feel like we’re getting a good handle on what teachers want,” he said.

“We want everybody to have input into this legislation,” Lucas said. “One of our jobs is to keep teachers informed.”

Malloy said a Senate education subcommittee has met 15 times around the state seeking public opinion on the legislation, including opinion from teachers.

He said he hopes the Senate is in a position to take up a similar bill there when the legislature returns to session in January. “This is a critical time because we have a crowded calendar,” Malloy said. “I hope we can have this bill front and center when we go back into session.”

He acknowledged that details remain to be worked out. “I think this is a good comprehensive bill. It’s a good opportunity to start,” Malloy said. “Nothing is more important than how we take care of our children.”

“What is crucial to you may not be so crucial to someone else,” Williams said in response to a question about what panelists thought were the most critical parts of the legislation.

Williams said he visits public schools in his district regularly and talks to teachers to take their views back to Columbia.

“This bill does need to pass as soon as possible,” Spearman said.

“This is the first opportunity for true change,” Newman said.

Another question focused on teacher pay. This year, teachers got a 4% raise.

Lucas said lawmakers added $159 million to this year’s state budget for teacher salaries. “We don’t have that much growth in the budget every year,” he said.

Spearman noted that over the last four years, pay for first-year teachers has risen 18%. And Newman pointed out that this year in Darlington County, the school board raised pay for first-year teachers from $35,000 to $39,000 a year and included a one-time bonus for first-year teachers of $1,000.

The panel also discussed possible changes to the funding formula for school districts. Lucas said legislation aimed at addressing the funding formula is not intended as a swipe at teachers but at fixing a broken system that has not been addressed in 42 years.

But using public school funding for students to attend private schools is not acceptable, Williams said. “Anytime you’re pulling public funding from public schools, it certainly doesn’t help,” he said.

Jeffords agreed. He said the best way to ensure that public funding stays in public schools is to “make our schools better.”

“I think we’ve done a lot over the past few years to make things better for teachers,” Jeffords said.

Questions also focused on revamping testing and assessment programs and making sure teachers have adequate instructional time in the classroom. “We don’t want to tie you down with testing all the time and paperwork,” Newman said.

Knight said reinforcing the rigor of the state’s teacher education program as well as making it more practical by reflecting “real life” issues teachers face in the classroom will help teachers grow professionally.

“The heart and soul of your school is the teachers,” Knight said.

She also called for greater opportunities for teachers to collaborate on instructional efforts.

Questions from the Teacher Forum were submitted to panelists in advance of the forum.

The Darlington County Teacher Forum is now in its 25th year. The forum’s mission is to provide a voice for teachers and to develop teacher leadership. The Teacher Forum sponsors many events for the teachers of Darlington County and fosters teacher leadership opportunities throughout the year.

The Darlington County School District Teacher of the Year program is designed to honor those teachers who exceed expectations to provide meaningful and rewarding learning experiences. It is dedicated to all teachers who work diligently every day for their students.

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