by Lucia Stevick-Brown
On May 1, 2019, the South Carolina State House steps flooded with red. Ten thousand teachers, students, parents, and supporters protested during “Red for Ed” for expanded school funding, an end to high stakes testing, greater community support services, and smaller class sizes. I stood on that State House lawn with my fellow students and my teachers in support of a better education.
At their best, schools provide the lessons in citizenship that its students need to make South Carolina a better place. But the conditions in schools make it hard to learn and harder to keep teachers.
Teachers are leaving the state and profession at alarming rates, a crisis intertwined with South Carolina’s historically underfunded, failing schools. My Richland County public high school had significant teacher turnover. My brother, just two years behind me and enrolled in the same program I attended, has only two teachers in common from my year. During my time at the school, teachers regularly had to cover others’ classes during their planning periods; my school could not even sustain enough substitutes. Most of the best teachers left for stronger programs in other schools and other states. My school was thrown into a spiral of teacher shortages all too common across the state.
My sophomore English teacher was one who stayed, and she first introduced me to the concept of civil disobedience. We talked about what it meant, how different groups defined it, and the results of global movements. We delved into the history of the Freedom Riders, a group of 1960s civil rights activists who rode buses throughout the South to challenge segregation. As part of this unit, she organized us to go to the University of South Carolina and listen to Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, one of the prominent Freedom Riders, speak. The activist I had researched, this living part of history, was right in front of me. After Ms. Mulholland’s talk, I thanked her personally. She told me that the future was in the hands of the youth, and that we need to spearhead change in our communities.
Student action, pressure, and vision are crucial to improving South Carolina. As we marched that first day of May, I thought about Ms. Mulholland, civil disobedience, and what it meant for entire school districts to close that Wednesday because of our fight for progress. We students are the ones in our public schools who are affected firsthand by both the inspiring teachers who stay but also the lack of acceptable resources. We raised our voices in support of Red for Ed so that more students could learn, more teachers could stay, and the public the schools create could make our South Carolina better.
More than a year after the march, virtual learning only exacerbates the inequity in education in South Carolina. In July 2020, The State reported that South Carolina schools have been unable to reach 16,000 students during the pandemic. Reasons range from lack of high-speed internet to the need to support family members. Even before COVID-19, my middle school could not provide soap in the bathrooms. Without more funding and resources, how can this state support its teachers and students during this crisis?
With some of my closest friends and teachers, I marched that May for what we all need: a functioning public education system that will support the next generation of citizens in our state. Protests for South Carolina education continued through the fall of 2020, with teachers staging a drive-by, pandemic-safe protest. Student involvement will continue in this fight, but maybe, this time, we’ll be six feet apart.
Regardless of where I end up in my life, I will always be a product of South Carolina public schools. I protest because someday, I want to be proud of it.