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Teacher Contracts

BY STEVE NUZUM


South Carolina law requires teachers to return signed contracts for the following year to school districts before May 11. A current  South Carolina Department of Education memo explicitly prohibits districts from requiring them earlier this year.


Yet according to state teachers, some districts regularly pressure teachers into signing contracts earlier than the deadline. In one way, this is understandable, since districts have struggled more and more each year to fill employee vacancies.


But somewhat paradoxically, districts in SC have historically pushed to move the contract deadline further and further back so that they have more time to get a picture of what district finances will look like, come August, before they start loosely promising teachers that they’ll have jobs, trapping employees in a push and pull between a race to sign contracts and a delay in the information that helps them make informed choices.  A 2016 law, for example, changed the contract due date from April 25 to May 11, likely in order to give districts more time to figure out funding. 


But for teachers, there is little built-in incentive to quickly sign contracts, which tend to follow a rigid format that grants a great deal of latitude to districts, and essentially no guarantees about employee rights, compensation, specific job descriptions, or even information about work sites, to teachers. 


Teacher contracts have a complex history that has often become embroiled in national and local politics.  In South Carolina, the current contract has evolved out of a long-term movement to limit employee bargaining rights. 


For example, with the Red Scare and the rise of McCarthyism, public school contracts at least as far back as 1949 began to include “loyalty oaths”. A 1949 issue of the Gaffney Ledger mentions a proposal for requiring California college teachers to sign explicitly anti-communist oaths. In that same year, 27 states,as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, required teachers to sign loyalty oaths. These same kinds of oaths often targeted advocacy organizations, like the NAACP, on the grounds that they were secretly or implicitly communist-adjacent. 


In South Carolina, the Gressette Committee-- chaired by the segregationist Marion Gressette-- went a step further, with a series of laws including one that required an anti-NAACP oath: “this law made it illegal for local, county, or state government employees to be NAACP members and required them to disclose if their family members were in the organization.”


Labeling the NAACP a “subversive organization” served a similar purpose to today’s efforts at labeling pro-teacher organizations as “Marxist” or “radical Left” or “woke”: to undermine public support by villainizing groups which advocate on behalf of both educators and students. (To give one of many historical examples, a push by SCEA in 1948 is at least partly responsible for blocking an effort in the legislature to end the practice of offering twelfth grade.)  


Ultimately, the courts have struck down many loyalty oath requirements as unconstitutional, but this history demonstrates that some policymakers have long seen the contract as a tool to command teacher loyalty and control behavior, rather than as a mutually-beneficial agreement between employer and employee. 


Of course, teacher contracts don’t work like this in every state.  For example, one Andover, Connecticut, teacher contract is 39 pages long. It outlines grievance procedures, guarantees a salary that has been negotiated, collectively and in advance, between the Andover Education Association and the district, requires tuition reimbursement for graduate courses, and even ensures that teachers will be involved in decision-making in areas like textbook selection.  


The average South Carolina contract, by contrast, is not formally negotiated by anyone. As a result, it usually includes a standard clause that allows the district to change teacher compensation based on state budgets, even after a teacher has signed the contract, which under state law locks them into a 190-day agreement with the district that will result in a challenge to their certificate for a calendar year if they break it for almost any reason. It is usually 1-3 pages long, and structurally one-sided. As in any one-sided relationship, this results in an unhealthy balance of power and responsibilities.


An obvious difference between the evolution of these two contracts is that South Carolina has a long history of attacks on the educator workforce, including from within. While contracts in many states are developed through a formal process of negotiation between teacher unions and/ or associations and the public school districts and/ or the state, SC’s anti-labor laws and history of anti- public employee union court decisions have removed most of the formal leverage public employees like teachers might have in a negotiation.  


Losses in South Carolina teacher bargaining power are wrapped up in a complicated history that involves the segregationist efforts of officials like Gressette, who explicitly conflated unionism and Civil Rights.  In 1943, for example, a lawsuit by the SC NAACP called for “the equalization of white and Negro teacher salaries”. According to historian Jon Hale and others, opposing factions began to push for either the NAACP’s egalitarian goals, or the more abstract idea of “professionalization,” a loose concept that suggested that the tradeoff for being treated as professionals in the workforce, for teachers, was to abandon the direct action and solidarity-building efforts of Civil Rights and union organizations, and to try to work harder to “get along” with policymakers, often at the expense of teachers of color, who had been responsible for forming the strongest educator associations in the state. 


Professionalism, then, could be seen as simply another word for the “loyalty” that the loyalty oaths, themselves, were no longer allowed to require.


Today, many teachers and other public employees are in the position of signing contracts each year which promise them nothing, but which require a kind of “professionalism” that is a loyalty oath in all but name. 


Many teacher advocates in South Carolina are pushing for teachers to delay signing their contracts until the final due date, May 10, in order to draw attention to the one-sided nature of most district contracts. 


Berkeley County School District teacher Kat Low has also encouraged teachers to print out copies of their contracts to show to others.  In a recent social media post, Low writes, “Has your legislator or school board member ever seen your contract? You might be surprised. Show it to them! Tell them contracts are about respect!”

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