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SC panel urges more spending to recruit teachers

Seanna Adcox, Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina's education oversight panel recommended Monday that legislators spend more on programs designed to draw high school students into teaching and fill slots in the state's neediest schools.

The Education Oversight Committee's budget recommendations include spending an additional $1 million on Teach for America, $2 million on student loans to future teachers, and $400,000 on the rigorous Teaching Fellows scholarship program.

"It's a teacher-focused budget," said EOC executive director Melanie Barton.

The group's recommendations follow several years of state budget cuts that led to thousands of teacher layoffs across the state and discouraged students from entering the profession.

South Carolina colleges are graduating 2,000 education majors yearly, while 4,000 new teachers are needed annually, according to the Center for Educator Recruitment Retention and Advancement, based at Winthrop University.

The committee — an independent panel of legislators, educators and business leaders — also recommended restoring the $275 given to each teacher for classroom supplies and simplifying how teachers are paid. The group believes the Legislature should consolidate separate line items for teacher salaries and distribute that money to districts based on their student populations.

The recommendations are on how to spend the penny per dollar of the state sales tax designated solely to education. That penny was added to the sales tax as part of the 1984 Education Improvement Act, with the intent of funding innovation in schools. Basic education needs are supposed to be funded through the state's general fund. Currently, both pots of money fund teacher salaries but formulas distribute the money differently.

The EOC's recommendations call for increasing money to Teach for America to $3 million. The program, in its second year in South Carolina, puts enthusiastic, mostly non-education college graduates into hard-to-fill slots in underprivileged schools. Teach for America recruits commit to teach for at least two years.

The nonprofit currently has 110 teachers in South Carolina. The additional money would allow the group to expand its teacher corps to 230 in 2013-14, said Josh Bell, executive director for Teach for America in South Carolina.

Barton said an additional $2 million would fund all applicants for a loan program that's meant to encourage students to stay in South Carolina and teach in needy public schools. The program, created in 1984, provides a maximum of $20,000 toward a student's college degree in education. The amount is forgiven within five years of teaching in a needy school or a hard-to-fill subject — sooner if both definitions apply. Students must pay the money back, with interest, if they don't do so after graduation.

The $400,000 would go to CERRA for its Teaching Fellows program for the state's top students. The program involves intensive training and community service projects beyond that of other education majors. To ensure South Carolina's children benefit from the program, fellows must teach in a public school for at least as many years as they received the scholarship, or pay back the money.

The EOC also advocates giving CERRA $100,000 for its high school teacher cadet program.

Barton said the state needs to overhaul the teacher salary system and establish a new minimum pay schedule.

A joint House and Senate study committee was supposed to make recommendations by Dec. 1 on how to bring teachers' pay back on track following several years of frozen salary schedules. But the group declined to take any action at its last meeting. It expects to meet a final time after the legislative session starts next month.

The EOC approved, as a recommendation, what Barton presented to the group.

For the last two school years, legislators allowed school districts to suspend annual salary increases that state law otherwise requires teachers receive for each additional year in the classroom. Many districts managed to fund the increases through local taxes, exacerbating teachers' already inequitable salaries across the state.

Bringing salaries back on track could cost $67 million statewide.

"Who's going to pay?" Barton said. "We looked at different options for how go back in time and fix it. You can't go back. You can just go forward."