Meg Kinnard
Meg covers national politics and lives in South Carolina.
MegKinnardAPmkinnard@ap.org

SC gov hopeful Cunningham proposes 10% teacher pay bump

March 22, 2022 GMT
FILE - Former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham talks during an interview with The Associated Press about his campaign for South Carolina governor on Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Mount Pleasant, S.C.  Cunningham, who is running to unseat Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, is proposing raising starting salaries for new K-12 teachers across the state by nearly 40% over the next decade. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File)
FILE - Former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham talks during an interview with The Associated Press about his campaign for South Carolina governor on Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Mount Pleasant, S.C.  Cunningham, who is running to unseat Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, is proposing raising starting salaries for new K-12 teachers across the state by nearly 40% over the next decade. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File)
FILE - Former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham talks during an interview with The Associated Press about his campaign for South Carolina governor on Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Mount Pleasant, S.C.  Cunningham, who is running to unseat Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, is proposing raising starting salaries for new K-12 teachers across the state by nearly 40% over the next decade. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File)
FILE - Former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham talks during an interview with The Associated Press about his campaign for South Carolina governor on Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Mount Pleasant, S.C. Cunningham, who is running to unseat Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, is proposing raising starting salaries for new K-12 teachers across the state by nearly 40% over the next decade. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File)
FILE - Former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham talks during an interview with The Associated Press about his campaign for South Carolina governor on Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Mount Pleasant, S.C. Cunningham, who is running to unseat Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, is proposing raising starting salaries for new K-12 teachers across the state by nearly 40% over the next decade. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Joe Cunningham, who is running to unseat Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, is proposing raising starting salaries for new K-12 teachers by nearly 40% over the next decade, part of a plan the Democrat said is desperately needed to help the state recruit retain educators.

“Year, after year, after year, our teachers have been simply getting scraps,” Cunningham told The Associated Press before rolling out his plan on Tuesday. “People have been gaslighting them, calling them heroes while not showing them their appreciation through the state budget or the district budget.”

The proposal calls for an immediate 10% raise for all public-school teachers, gradually raising starting teacher salaries from $36,000 to $50,000 by 2030, at the end of a second Cunningham term if he wins this fall and is reelected.

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Cunningham, 39, served one term in the U.S. House before losing his 2020 reelection. Filing for South Carolina’s June 14 primary elections opened this month, and Cunningham’s campaign said he planned to file his campaign paperwork this week. Another Democrat, state Sen. Mia McLeod, filed her candidacy Wednesday.

As of the end of last year, McLeod had raised $359,000, compared with Cunningham’s more than $1.3 million. Seeking his second full term in office, McMaster has a war chest of $4.5 million.

South Carolina’s average pay for a new teacher is ranked 40th in the country, according to the National Education Association. Overall, the average salary for a South Carolina teacher — $53,329, as of the 2019-2020 fiscal year — was 38th in the country, according to the group.

Cunningham also is proposing 12 weeks of paid parental leave for public school teachers, a benefit he argued is sorely lacking among the state’s education workforce. A version of paid leave for state employees overwhelmingly passed the House last year with bipartisan support and is pending in the Senate, but Cunningham said that won’t cover teachers like his plan.

Other measures include decreasing class sizes, requiring planning time and increasing support staff such as teaching assistants, guidance counselors and social workers.

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There’s also a plan to boost the Teaching Fellows Program, which recruits high school seniors to become educators and teach in public schools for as many years as they’ve accepted scholarship funds. Cunningham said he would triple it from 200 students to 600 and provide $9,000 per semester, up from $3,000.

“We need to incentivize students to go into teaching and follow their heart into it,” Cunningham said. The educators he’s sought advice from frequently mention expanding the program, he said. “If they know they’re going to receive scholarships if they complete the program, I think that’s going to recruit more teachers.”

Implementing any items on Cunningham’s wish list would require buy-in from South Carolina’s Legislature, where Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers.

The state budget overwhelmingly approved by House lawmakers last week already includes $230 million to boost the minimum teacher pay regardless of experience by $4,000, assuring that starting teachers in every district would be paid at least $40,000.

The Democrat said he would press lawmakers on the urgency of the matter.

“I would stress to them that this is an emergency,” he said. “We have teachers leaving by the droves. ... We’ve got a lot at stake here and we aren’t going to be able to solve these problems by just making minimum adjustments.”

Cunningham said he would also point to his previous proposals, including “hundreds of millions of dollars” he predicts would flow in if his plan to legalize marijuana were implemented — another proposal that would require legislative buy-in.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.