COLUMBIA -- 2000 might well be known as the year of the teacher -- at least to South Carolina's Democrats.
They've made it their motto for the coming legislative session, which begins Jan. 11.
"For far too long, the vital role that teachers play has been overlooked," said state Sen. John Land, D-Manning. "The time has come for our educators to receive the credit, attention and gratitude they deserve."
By a unanimous vote of the Senate Democratic Caucus on Tuesday, legislators endorsed measures to increase teacher pay by 5.3 percent and give cash awards to those who pass the demanding National Board Certification Test.
Senators lauded Gov. Jim Hodges' plan to remedy South Carolina's teacher shortage with an incentive program. The governor wants to let educators delay retiring for five years while their benefits are placed in an interest-bearing account.
The proposed pay raise follows a trend to move South Carolina's teacher salaries closer to the national average. Last year, legislators raised teacher pay $325 above the Southeast average. And Senate Democrats want teachers to get paid even more by raising their salaries at least $525 above the Southeast average.
"If education is our state's No. 1 priority, we must put a premium on those who make teaching their profession," said state Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg.
"By raising teachers' salaries close to the national average, we hope to prevent losing experienced and qualified educators to the higher paid jobs of the private sector."
The recommendations come one week after Mr. Hodges announced he would suggest that the General Assembly raise teachers' pay and add three more in-service days to their contracts. Teachers now have 10 in-service days in their 190-day contracts.
The lawmakers agreed to back the level of raises the governor recommended and said they will support his incentive plan.
Mr. Hodges will deliver his recommendations in January, and they will be included in his executive budget.
In its last session, the Legislature created the First Steps program and passed a 3 percent pay raise for state employees. The governor has pushed both measures.
State Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, was a main player in pushing the initiatives through the caucus.
Specifics of the 2000 legislative agenda include:
The projected Southeast average teacher pay is $37,500 for fiscal 2000-01. In South Carolina, teachers average $36,000. Under the proposal, teachers would get $2,000 to $2,500 more each year.
Teachers who pass the National Board Certification Exam would earn an extra $6,000 a year as long as they're certified. Because each certificate lasts 10 years, teachers could make an additional $60,000 -- and more if they pass the test again. Of 45,000 teachers in South Carolina, only 34 are nationally certified now. Senate Democrats say they hope 500 will be by 2002.
Teachers, state employees and local government workers operate on a 30-year retirement plan. Senate Democrats propose reducing retirement to 28 years.
South Carolina's GOP didn't let the Democrats bask too long Tuesday before firing back.
State Rep. Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, accused Democrats of piggybacking on Republican recommendations that already are being considered.
"They're obviously just looking around at what everybody else is talking about doing or what we've already done," Mr. Harrell said. "We welcome them to the planning process. It's good to have them along."
When the Legislature reconvenes, Republicans will have their own education agenda, which includes letting parents move their children out of underperforming schools.
Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.