South Carolina Boosts Scholarships for Education Majors to Stem Teacher Shortage

Students studying to become teachers are newly eligible for $2,500 to $3,300 more yearly.

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COLUMBIA — Education majors at South Carolina colleges can get additional scholarship aid starting this fall under a bill Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law Monday.

The new law, which passed both the House and Senate unanimously, is meant to encourage more students to become teachers amid an ever-worsening teacher shortage, supporters said.

It extends to education majors the same boost in lottery-backed scholarships that state law has offered students majoring in math and science since 2007.

Students receiving the money must agree to teach at a public school in the state for as many years as they received the scholarship, which can be a maximum of four years.

“I’m thrilled to death,” said Senate Education Chairman Greg Hembree, the bill’s main sponsor. “It was one of those no-brainer pieces of legislation to assist with trying to retain teachers.”

As of February, public K-12 schools in the state had 1,315 open positions for teachers, librarians, counselors, psychologists and speech therapists, according to the mid-year update from the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention & Advancement.

The scholarships will be available this coming school year to college sophomores, juniors and seniors who went to high school in South Carolina and are already receiving LIFE or Palmetto Fellows scholarships, which are awarded to students who meet academic criteria. The money is meant to cover students’ remaining tuition after other scholarships are applied.

LIFE Scholarship recipients can get up to $2,500 more on top of the $5,000 they already receive, and Palmetto Fellows Scholarship recipients can get up to $3,300 added to their $7,500. The money will come from lottery profits.

If the number of students studying education in the state remains consistent this coming year, students will receive an additional $8 million in scholarships, the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office estimated.

That number should increase if the program accomplishes its goal in enticing more students toward the teaching profession, Hembree said.

Although offering scholarships won’t solve the teacher shortage, it might draw in a few more students on the fence about pursuing education by offering more money for doing so, said the Little River Republican.

“What I’m thinking about is the one (student) who’s on the border, thinking, ‘Maybe this, maybe that,’” Hembree said.

Along with encouraging high school students to pursue teaching, the program will likely keep teachers in the profession by reducing how much student loan debt they have to pay, said Patrick Kelly, a lobbyist for the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

“We think this is one of the best actions taken by the General Assembly this session to help with teacher recruitment,” said Kelly, who also teaches advanced government courses at Blythewood High School.

Lawmakers also plan to increase the minimum teacher salary in the state from $42,500 to $47,000 in the coming year in part of the effort to reduce the teacher shortage. The budget process is not yet finished, but the House and Senate have agreed to the teacher salary numbers.

Other efforts

Several other bills meant to address a shortage of teachers did not make it to the finish line this year.

One would have allowed teachers more time to back out of contracts. Another would have accounted for experience outside of the classroom in determining a teacher’s pay.

“Those would’ve really moved the needle,” Kelly said.

Advocates have been pushing for more flexibility in teacher contracts for years. Teachers must sign their contracts by mid-May, usually weeks before their local school board sets their pay. If a teacher breaks their contract after signing, they lose their certification for a year, beginning whenever the State Board of Education hears their case.

The bill proposed this year would have allowed teachers to bow out of their contracts within 10 days of seeing their salaries. Anyone who withdrew from their contract between then and six months would also face reduced penalties.

That could help teachers get back in the classroom more quickly if they need to leave the district for another reason, such as dealing with a family emergency or moving alongside a spouse, advocates have said.

The House passed the bill, but the Senate did not take it up.

Because teacher pay is decided based on how many years someone has been teaching, accounting for real-world experience in a field could draw in more teachers by making it more appealing for people to consider teaching when switching fields, Kelly said.

Both the House and Senate passed their own versions of that proposal but failed to create a committee to work out the differences before the end of session.

“I’m really disappointed to see that not make it to the finish line,” Kelly said.

Another of Hembree’s bills that would have allowed people with at least five years of experience in their field to teach without getting certified did not become law this year.

That bill faced significantly more opposition than other proposals, with Kelly and some lawmakers raising questions over whether people would have adequate training to handle classrooms full of students.

The proposal is not likely to bring in many people, but it could help fill some of the classrooms with all-virtual teachers or long-term substitutes, Hembree said. He plans to reintroduce it next year.

“It’s a game of inches,” Hembree said. “You just keep coming back and try again.”

Gov. Henry McMaster signed more than 50 bills into law this week. Others he signed:

SC Daily Gazette is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. SC Daily Gazette maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Seanna Adcox for questions: info@scdailygazette.com. Follow SC Daily Gazette on Facebook and Twitter.

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