This is not an official strike, like those that have swept through school districts across the country in the last year. Instead, teachers used a personal day to protest in their state capitols. But enough instructors were absent from work that five school districts had to close for the day.
“We know it is a sacrifice for educators to be out of their classrooms,” the teachers’ advocacy group SC for Ed said in a statement. “However, not participating in this event will only allow the cycle of detrimental education policy to continue.”
Teachers are demanding a pay raise of ten percent, a ban on retaliation by lawmakers against teachers who protest, and more mental health counselors in schools. All of these are issues across the country, not just in the Carolinas.
“There’s a lack of respect for our profession,” Saani Perry, an 8th grade math and science teacher in South Carolina, told CNN. “Teachers are not valued the way they should be.”
Perry, who has been teaching for four years, told CNN he takes home only $36,000 a year before taxes. He has to work additional jobs like cleaning houses in order to pay the bills.
Lawmakers in many states have tried to punish teachers who have participated in strikes. Oklahoma attempted to pass a bill that would permanently revoke teaching certificates for teachers who walked out of class. And in Arizona, legislators tried to pass a bill that would fine teachers who close school for a protest $5,000.
“You’re expected to sit in the classroom and stay quiet and not speak your mind,” Perry told CNN.
Mental health is also a big issue for teachers dealing with students who sometimes bring up personal problems in class.
“We might see students who are suicidal. We might have students write in their essays about siblings or parents who have drug addiction,” Patrick Martin, a high school English teacher, told CNN.
Martin has pushed for more counselors in the past.
“But every time, I just kept getting told there’s not enough school funding,” he says.
In North Carolina, teachers were out in the streets with similar demands, including more psychologists, librarians, and social workers in schools, a $15 minimum wage for school employees, and Medicaid expansion.
Teachers say that money for these demands could come from new taxes on goods that are currently exempt.
“Currently, only about 42% of goods and services in South Carolina are taxed,” school board member and teacher Nicole Walker told CNN. “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.”
South Carolina Superintendent Molly Spearman says that she knows more needs to be done to support teachers in the state, though she doesn’t agree with the walk out.
“I support teachers using their voice to advocate for needed change,” Spearman said 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.”
There is currently a bill in the South Carolina House of Representatives that would increase the minimum starting salary of teachers from $32,000 to $35,000. But advocates say that won’t be enough to attract new teachers.
If the states don’t meet the teacher’s new demands, a longer walk out next school year could follow.
“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 told CNN.