Teacher workloads keep growing in South Carolina
Crises, austerity, and the erosion of a vital public good
Compared to 15 years ago, South Carolina public school teachers are doing more work, administering more tests with higher stakes, for wages that increasingly get eaten by inflation, under intensifying scrutiny from aggrieved political actors — and in many cases, they’re doing it with more students than ever.
The last time I looked into the growth of K-12 classroom sizes in my state was 2019, and the picture was bleak. While state regulations1 set strict limits on student-teacher ratios in most types of classrooms, the state legislature had started granting waivers to those caps during the Great Recession and had not resumed enforcement.
Predictably, median classroom size soared as the state stopped funding its obligations to school districts, teachers’ promised pay increases were frozen, and teachers quit the profession faster than the colleges of education could graduate new ones. When I wrote about the trend for The Post and Courier in 2019, classroom sizes had begun to shrink but were still significantly larger than they were in the 2007-08 academic year.
I looked again this month. Things have gotten worse.
Across all school districts in South Carolina, median classroom size has grown by nearly 3 students, from 20.2 in 2008 to 23 in 2022. While state regulations cap most classroom sizes in middle and high school at 35 students, I found 2 middle schools and 26 high schools where the student-to-teacher ratio in core subject areas was above 35-to-1.
“It’s obscene what’s happening,” said Jamie Meissner, a fellow parent with 3 children attending elementary and middle schools in the Charleston County School District. I called her recently to talk about the practical problems associated with growing classrooms. She said her kids feel the pressure, too. All 3 have seen their teachers crying.
“My children have felt that their teachers are stressed and they’re constantly concerned about them being able to reach everybody,” Meissner said. “It’s heartbreaking, and it’s not the teachers’ fault, because truthfully they’re doing everything they can. I don’t see the resources coming into the classroom to support the kids. My kids see their friends rolling on the floor with social, emotional, or mental health needs that nobody’s addressing, and the teacher has to bear it all by themselves.”
I’m a graduate of South Carolina public schools who sends his kids to South Carolina public schools, and despite the bad headlines and flagging test scores, I’ve seen firsthand how our education system can change people’s lives for the better. I’m certainly better for it, and my own kids are flourishing.
But after a decade-and-a-half of austerity and a century-and-a-half of backlash to the universal public good of education in South Carolina, I’m left wondering how many more hits the system can take.
I’m sharing the data I found in archived State Report Card data from 2007-2022 via a publicly downloadable spreadsheet, in hopes that journalists, activists, and lawmakers will join me in pushing for full funding, better work conditions for our teachers, and better learning conditions for our students.2
The upward spiral
Problems of this scale are overdetermined. The runaway growth of classroom sizes in South Carolina K-12 schools is the result of a cascading series of policy and budget choices.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and the Republican-controlled legislature kneecapped school funding in 2006 with a tax handout to homeowners (Act 388) that routinely wrecks school revenues during economic downturns. As metropolitan school districts have grown thanks in part to an influx of workers for manufacturing concerns like Boeing, Volvo, and BMW, county governments have handed those employers massive tax incentives that cheated schools out of $2.2 billion in the last 5 years alone. And the legislature has not funded its own legally mandated Base Student Cost to districts since 2009, flagrantly violating the law every time it passes a budget — with outsize effects in our poorest rural districts.
The Great Recession-era waivers on classroom size caps certainly didn’t help (when then-Superintendent Mick Zais tried to eliminate classroom size caps permanently in 2013, the response from teachers was a resounding “Hell no”). Neither did the legislature’s decision during tight budget years to renege on their promises of annual “step” increases in teacher pay, which led to depressed wages more than a decade later. As South Carolina’s population has boomed, the state has been losing teachers in droves, many of them quitting in their first 5 years.
The teacher shortage was a crisis before COVID-19 hit the state in 2020, and it’s only gotten worse. South Carolina schools started the current academic year with 1,474 unfilled K-12 educator jobs, the highest number of vacancies ever recorded, according to the state’s Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, & Advancement (CERRA).
Teachers don’t always get an exit interview, and the state doesn’t always listen when they do speak up. Back in 2006, researchers from the Riley Institute at Furman University tried to be proactive, conducting extensive interviews3 with teachers and community members seeking input on what it would take to attract and retain high-performing teachers.
The number 1 priority for teachers in elementary, middle, and high schools was maintaining small class sizes.
The learning environment
Meissner, my fellow parent, is well acquainted with this crisis. She had a child in public Montessori teacher Sariah McCall’s class when she publicly quit the profession in a November 2018 open letter published in the Washington Post.
“The systemic abuse and neglect of educators and other public service workers in the state of South Carolina should have its citizens so enraged. The unrealistic demands and all-consuming nature of the profession are not sustainable. I am still a human being,” McCall wrote in that letter.4
The idea of keeping class sizes to a minimum dates back at least as far as the 12th-century rabbinic scholar Maimonides, who proposed capping class sizes at 40 students (incidentally, that’s the current cap on PE and music class sizes in South Carolina).
I recently caught up with Mahwish “Mev” Macintosh, a high school English teacher in the nearby Berkeley County School District. It was near the end of the school year — peak testing season — and she shared how both the testing burden and the size of her classes have grown since she entered the profession in 2001. She made it through rounds of budget cuts and reductions in force early in her career, and now she finds her work made all the more difficult thanks to high-stakes standardized and benchmark tests required by federal, state, and district rules.
She started this school year with 29 students in an English II class. English II has a state-mandated End of Course exam that factors heavily into school accountability report cards, and she figures that in the course of an average school year, she loses about a month’s worth of instructional time to testing disruptions.
In an already challenging job, new pressures come from every direction.
“If we’re trying to continue to promote a productive and meaningful and relevant learning environment, that’s the antithesis of it,” Macintosh said.
Jamie Meissner and I have both been advocating for a $7,000 pay raise for teachers in Charleston County. I wrote an open letter to the school board about it last week. A local teacher launched a petition with more details if you would like to read it and sign it. School board members are whittling down the recommendations of the teacher compensation taskforce
Brutal South is a free weekly newsletter about class struggle and education in the American South.
Classroom size limits are set by the State Board of Education in Code of Regulations Chapter 43, Section 205. You can find those limits here (PDF).
I made my graph using South Carolina School Report Card data from the academic years ending 2008 through 2022. For each school year, I found the median of all school districts’ reported student-teacher ratios in the core subject areas of math, English, science, and social studies.
While the relevant data heading in the report card spreadsheets has changed over the years (data88 through 2014, C32 through 2017, and then StudentTeacherRatio_CurrYr through 2022), I confirmed with the S.C. Department of Education that the figure was calculated in the same way across the relevant time period. An explanation of that figure’s calculation can be found here (PDF) and in this 2009 accountability manual from the S.C. Education Oversight Committee.
District-reported classroom sizes included many low outliers during the 2013-14 academic year. In my previous reporting for The Post and Courier, state officials were unable to confirm the authenticity of those numbers, which were provided and verified by individual school districts.
There is a gap in data for the 2019-20 school year. According to Derek Phillips, director of communications at the S.C. Department of Education, “The summer survey was not issued in 2020 so the ratio was not calculated.”
In case you missed it, last year I caught up with McCall — now Sariah Miller — and found out she’d re-entered the teaching profession and was working at an elementary school in Savannah, Georgia. “I would not teach in Charleston again, that’s for sure,” she told me at the time. You can read more about that here.