U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will visit a South Carolina company Thursday to highlight a Trump administration workforce initiative.
What the U.S. Department of Education’s announcement of the visit doesn’t say: That company, Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp., has been the focus of national stories about low teacher pay in the Palmetto State.
That’s because the drug manufacturer employs about 650 current and retired teachers, many of them regularly heading from their classrooms to their second jobs folding cartons, labeling syringes, and packing materials. The educators make $21 an hour at part-time jobs through the new program, Nephron officials told Education Week earlier this year, and some drive up to two hours to work at the West Columbia facility.
DeVos will visit Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp. with South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman not to discuss the teacher program, but to highlight its participation in the Pledge to America’s Workers, through which 250 companies have signed on to create new jobs and training opportunities. The company’s teacher program is not a part of that initiative.
The average South Carolina teacher’s salary was about $48,000 in 2017-18, among the lowest in the country, a National Education Association analysis found. The national average was about $62,000. Starting salaries there are also among the lowest in the country.
At least seven South Carolina districts were forced to close in May when about about 4,000 teachers, students, and supporters protested at the statehouse to call for a 10 percent across-the-board raise, smaller class sizes, uninterrupted planning time, and for the state legislature to reduce the amount of standardized and district-mandated testing. Spearman, the state education superintendent, did not support that protest and offered to substitute teach that day.
“The Secretary is glad to see local employers stepping up to support their teachers especially when they aren’t in the classroom,” Education Department spokesperson Elizabeth Hill said in an email responding to questions from Education Week Wednesday. “As she has always said, teachers should be honored and respected as the professionals they are, and the best teachers should make at least as much as what their union bosses make, at half a million dollars a year.” That last remark about “best teachers” echoes a comment DeVos made at an Education Writers Association event in May.
“She was also pleased to see the governor sign the biggest pay increase in decades for teachers in SC,” Hill also said.
Hill did not respond to a follow-up question about what policies DeVos would support to raise teachers’ salaries, which are generally set through state and district policies.
Teachers unions and smaller teacher activist groups have sparred publicly with DeVos, criticizing her positions on issues like school choice and arming teachers. And DeVos has pushed back against the waves of teacher activism around the country in recent years, including in South Carolina, where educators pushed for more pay, more school resources, and other changes to state policies.
“It’s important that adults have adult disagreements on adult time and not ultimately hurt kids in the process,” DeVos said at the Education Writers Association event. “And I think too often they’re doing so by walking out of classrooms and having their arguments in the way that they are.”
Nephron responded to those South Carolina teacher protests with this Facebook post, which uses the #RedforEd hashtag popular among teacher activists:
Nephron CEO Lou Kennedy told Education Week in May that she supported the teachers’ protest.
“Until the legislature can find a way to pay [teachers] more, I’m not going to refrain from offering them good money when they need it,” she said.
After the teachers’ protest in South Carolina, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law legislation that dedicated nearly $160 million to teacher raises. It raised teachers’ minimum starting pay from $32,000 to $35,000, and gave an across-the-board 4 percent pay raise. Teachers with fewer than five years of experience will receive up to a 10 percent raise, in an attempt to keep more teachers in the classroom.
Photos from top: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos --Jacquelyn Martin/AP; An education advocate holds a sign during a May 1 teacher rally on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, in Columbia, S.C. --Christina Myers/AP