Other Views

Molly Spearman’s substitute teaching gig is no substitute for leadership

Teachers all across South Carolina walked out of their classrooms Wednesday to come to Columbia to lobby the General Assembly to adopt meaningful education reforms.

State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman announced that she sees the effort by teachers as abandoning their students, so she planned to spend the day as a substitute teacher.

Spearman’s problem, like that of many of the members of the Legislature, is that she sees the teacher mobilization solely as an effort by teachers for more pay and better working conditions. Even if that myopic perspective were accurate, Spearman should have used the day and the audience to promote improvements in our state’s educational system. That is leadership. Leadership one might expect from an experienced educator who happens to be a statewide elected official. Substitute teaching for the day is a stunt.

It is actually the kind of stunt that has allowed our educational system to be starved of resources and innovation. It is the kind of stunt that allowed Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley, and their legislative allies, to pretend that the educational system would be improved by taking money from public schools to subsidize tuition at private schools.

Do teachers deserve higher pay? Certainly. If I were a public school teacher and saw what our universities were paying football coaches with even mediocre records, I’d join in petitioning the General Assembly to fund education in our state.

Can schools be improved? Certainly. If I were a public school teacher I’d want members of the General Assembly to understand how facilities, planning periods, and class size relate to educational success.

Spearman played to the same anti-worker bias that has existed in South Carolina since slavery. That bias has resulted in laws that restrict the rights of workers, and deprives those in positions of authority from hearing from the people on the front line whether it is in the classroom, the spinning room (when we had those) or the assembly line.

Spearman seems annoyed that teachers wanted to come to Columbia while the legislature is in session to exercise their right to assemble and petition their government for redress. If she is unhappy that the teachers need to come on a weekday, perhaps she could petition the General Assembly to meet on Saturday so that teachers could demonstrate their commitment to their students by convincing legislators that the time for posturing and posing is past. It is time to fix our educational system.

From the perspective of teachers, parents and the business community, the message is “Fix the problem.”

A real fix will improve the opportunities for the students these teachers guide and assist on a daily basis.

That the fix must also include improved pay and working conditions for teachers to enable us to continue to attract and retain intelligent and dedicated teachers who will see a career path in education.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, one of the best law clerks I ever had, deserves great credit for trying to arrive at a solution. The process could have been improved had Lucas followed the example of Gov. Dick Riley who built grassroots support for educational reform before presenting proposed legislation to the General Assembly. No doubt Lucas and his staff made a good faith effort to craft legislation to address pressing needs, but he didn’t enlist the teachers, the parents and the business community in the effort in advance to achieve reform.

No educational reform is going to be achieved in this legislative session, and Molly Spearman’s day of substitute teaching is no substitute for the leadership she could have displayed by standing in front of the State House showing solidarity with the teachers and parents who are taking a stand.

Jay Bender is a retired University of South Carolina law professor who specializes in media law, and has represented The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette.