Saani Perry knew he wanted to be a teacher since he was 8 years old. Not just any teacher – a South Carolina teacher.
“I moved here from Germany, and I had a teacher in the second grade who went above and beyond,” Perry said. “What she did for me was unmatched. … I wanted to do that for other students.”
Fast-forward 17 years, and Perry is now an eighth-grade math and science teacher. But his dream job is marred by “a cycle of anxiety” that makes him consider leaving – abysmal pay, a lack of school resources, and critics who say teachers should just do their jobs without complaining.
“There’s a lack of respect for our profession,” he said. “Teachers are not valued the way they should be.”
That’s why Perry and thousands of other South Carolina teachers are rallying Wednesday at the State House in Columbia for the second time this year.
“We’re not at the end of our advocacy efforts,” said Patrick Martin, a high school English teacher. “We’re just getting started.”
Many teachers are using a personal day to protest. But there were enough planned absences to close at least five school districts Wednesday.
“We know it is a sacrifice for educators to be out of their classrooms,” the teachers’ advocacy group SC for Ed said. “However, not participating in this event will only allow the cycle of detrimental education policy to continue.”
What do teachers want?
The group laid out several demands to state lawmakers, including:
– 10% raises to get teachers’ salaries closer to the national average. As of 2017, South Carolina ranked 38th in teacher pay, with an average salary of about $50,000, according to data from the National Education Association.
Perry, a fourth-year teacher, said he makes about $36,000 before taxes. After taxes, “I don’t even take home $2,000 a month.”
He’s taken on extra jobs to pay the bills – including cleaning houses and tutoring for up to five hours after school.
– Banning retaliation against teachers for making public policy comments. This is a big concern across the country, as some teachers who protested or went on strike last year say they believe lawmakers are retaliating.
In Oklahoma, one bill said teachers would lose their certifications permanently for walking out. A bill in Arizona said anyone who closes school for a protest would be fined $5,000.
Perry said many teachers feel disrespected – whether that’s from parents, community members or administrators.
“You’re expected to sit in the classroom and stay quiet and not speak your mind,” he said.
– More mental health counselors. This is the main reason why Martin is protesting Wednesday.
“I started advocating for more mental health support last year after a student had moved to my school from Parkland, Florida,” he said.
That student attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a former student is accused of killing 17 people last year.
Martin teaches English at Wando High School, the biggest high school in South Carolina. He said the Mount Pleasant school has 4,200 students and a staff of guidance counselors, but only one licensed mental health counselor.
That means “as a teacher, I’m on the front lines,” he said. “We might see students who are suicidal. We might have students write in their essays about siblings or parents who have drug addiction.”
Martin said he’s been pushing for more licensed mental health counselors and wants every school in South Carolina to have at least one.
“But every time, I just kept getting told there’s not enough school funding.”
North Carolina teachers are out, too
Many of the teachers’ grievances are shared in North Carolina, where a mass protest in Raleigh has forced more than 40 school districts or charter schools to close Wednesday.
The North Carolina Association of Educators said teachers want:
– More school librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses and other health professionals.
– A $15 minimum wage for all school employees; a 5% raise for all noncertified staff, teachers and administrators; and a 5% cost-of-living adjustment for retirees.
– An expansion of Medicaid to improve the health of our students and families.
– A reinstatement of state retiree health benefits eliminated by the state General Assembly in 2017.
– A restoration of advanced degree compensation stripped by the General Assembly in 2013.
And just like their neighbors to the south, North Carolina teachers are veteran protesters.
Last year, teachers rallied in Raleigh over frustration that they’ve lost 9.4% in pay since 2009 when adjusted for inflation. Per-student funding also hadn’t kept pace since the recession a decade ago.
The day before that one-day protest, state House Speaker Tim Moore announced teachers can expect average raises of 6.2% for the upcoming school year. But it wasn’t enough to stop the protest, as some teachers said they won’t get a 6.2% raise.
Where could money come from?
Members of SC for Ed say new tax revenue could help pay for their demands – but not by raising personal taxes.
“Currently, only about 42% of goods and services in South Carolina are taxed,” with 110 exemptions statewide, board member and teacher Nicole Walker said.
“So we feel the first step is to re-examine special tax exemptions the state has provided companies to look at whether or not it’s reasonable to exempt something like missile-making materials, which is exempt in our state.”
Legislators say they’re already working to improve education and teachers’ salaries.
But SC for Ed said those raises aren’t enough to attract and retain quality teachers. It’s also worried because HB 3759 would allow high-performing schools to hire more noncertified teachers, as long as they don’t make up more than 25% of the teaching staff.
State Superintendent Molly Spearman said she agrees the education system needs improvement but disagrees with the teachers’ protest Wednesday.
“I support teachers using their voice to advocate for needed change,” Spearman wrote in a statement. “However, I cannot support teachers walking out on their obligations to South Carolina students, families, and the thousands of hardworking bus drivers, cafeteria workers, counselors, aides, and custodial staff whose livelihoods depend on our schools being operational.”
Spearman said she’s already worked with legislators this year “to raise teacher salaries, provide additional mental health and safety resources for all students, and reduce excessive testing that takes valuable time away from teaching.”
“Progress continues to be made,” she said, “but much more needs to be done.”
What will happen next?
If Wednesday’s protest doesn’t produce enough change, teachers could be out of classrooms for much longer next school year.
“We are prepared to work with the Legislature to avoid a long-term walkout, which will most likely happen next year at this time if these needs aren’t met,” Walker said.
Perry, the 25-year-old who’s dreamed of being a teacher since he was a kid, now says he’s not sure how long he’ll stay in the profession if the situation doesn’t get better.
“My anxiety level has been sky-high … I’m not sure I can keep doing this for 30 years,” he said.
“I toyed with the idea of leaving the profession several times over the last three years. Every time I do it … it’s a guilt that can’t be described. I think about the students that were hungry or abused and homeless, who I bought a book bag for, I bought a meal for. If I leave, who’s going to do that?”
CNN’s Tina Burnside contributed to this report.