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Will 3,000 Teachers in South Carolina Soon Retire Because of a Policy Change?

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At stake in South Carolina's budget talks is a program that offers financial incentives for teachers to stay in the profession past retirement age—and educators fear that if the program expires, the statewide teacher shortage will dramatically worsen.

The Teacher Employee Retention Incentive program, or TERI, allows teachers to technically retire, but continue working. Their monthly retirement benefits are deposited into a special account for up to five years. The program was initially designed for teachers, but later expanded to all state employees. 

The program is set to end June 30, and the newspaper The State reports that about 6,630 state workers—and 3,380 educators, including teachers and other public-school employees—could walk off the job then. They don't have to quit—but without the program, the state won't allow retirees to collect retirement benefits after they earn $10,000 from their job, so state agencies and schools are predicting a mass exodus. (South Carolina already does exempt teachers in high-needs geographical and subject areas from the retirement earnings cap.)

Legislators have proposed a one-year extension of the program, but it's wrapped up in budget talks, which have stalled.

South Carolina's retirement system has been in crisis mode, with the state pension system reporting a $24 billion funding shortfall this year, according to the Post and Courier. The TERI program is contributing to the financial struggles, with critics referring to the arrangement as "double-dipping," but educators have urged legislators to keep the program going for a little while longer.

Otherwise, schools across the state are not prepared to lose some of their most experienced teachers. The Greenville County superintendent, for instance, told Fox Carolina that the school district has 143 teachers enrolled in the TERI program. The district already has a teacher shortage, he said, and ending the program will intensify it. 

"Long term, no, TERI is not a good option. ... It is a failed bandage at best," wrote Jon Pedersen, the dean of the University of South Carolina College of Education, in an opinion piece for The State. "But the criticisms of TERI overlook this essential question: What's the alternative for today? Open the floodgates and let anyone teach?" 

South Carolina estimates that it will need more than 5,000 new teachers each year, but teacher-preparation programs graduate about 2,000 candidates a year. While the state department of education has invested $500,000 in an ad campaign to attract new teachers to the profession, Pedersen wrote in his essay that the focus needs to be on retaining teachers. He added that the USC college of education recently created an induction program to support graduates in the first years of their career. 

South Carolina lawmakers must also decide during budget talks how much of a pay raise to give teachers. On May 19, a Saturday, dozens of educators across the state protested in front of an empty Statehouse, calling for better teacher pay. According to 2016-17 National Education Association salary data, the average S.C. teacher makes $50,000—almost $10,000 less than the national average. 

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that teachers in high-needs geographical and subject areas can be exempt from the retirement earnings cap. 

Image via Pixabay

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