COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina teachers would take a pay cut and students would take fewer tests under cost-cutting measures that won initial legislative approval Tuesday.
A House panel crafting the education budget for the next fiscal year voted unanimously to require that teachers statewide take a five-day furlough and that administrators take 10 days, saving roughly $100 million in salaries.
Lawmakers meanwhile avoided debate on a proposal to allow students in poorly performing schools to cross district lines to attend better public institutions.
The moves Tuesday come as legislators seek ways to plug a $563 million budget hole. They had considered lopping off students' last five days of school, but chose instead to take away half of teachers' paid work days. Districts have leeway over which of those days to cut, but the 180 instructional days won't change.
House Minority Leader Harry Ott said it was the better choice.
"Rather than taking away instructional days, we're keeping kids in the classroom," said Ott, a St. Matthews Democrat and member of the subcommittee.
Teachers said the furloughs means they'll have to work without pay, since their workloads will remain the same.
This year, school districts have the option of furloughing teachers up to five days when students aren't in class. Legislators contend that creates an unfair hodgepodge of local decisions.
The subcommittee also voted unanimously to suspend all tests not required under federal law, saving about $3 million. That means high school students would not take end-of-course statewide standardized tests in English, algebra or U.S. history next school year. There would be no end-of-year Social Studies testing in grades three through eight. Students would take high-stakes science tests only in fourth and seventh grades.
The executive director of the Education Oversight Committee unsuccessfully pleaded that legislators continue the tests.
"When you eliminate science and Social Studies in those grades, you diminish their importance," said Jo Anne Anderson.
The proposals now go to the full House Ways and Means Committee.
Legislators postponed voting on a proposal that would stop paying for new teachers to enter a national certification program, and on a so-called public school choice measure.
Teachers who earn national board certification receive an annual bonus of $7,500 for the 10-year life of the certificate. South Carolina continues to ranks third nationwide in teachers with the credential, with 7,297, behind North Carolina and Florida.
The Education Oversight Committee has recommended suspending new loans that pay upfront application fees for teachers entering the certification process, and stopping payment of stipends for teachers renewing their certificate for 10 more years. The loans are forgiven if teachers receive certification.
Anderson said ceasing new loans and new decade-long rounds of stipends next year would save $6 million, covering the cost of $7,500 stipends for the additional 800 teachers who earned the certification last fall. The program costs $62 million this fiscal year.
State schools Superintendent Jim Rex has proposed using savings from the national board stipend to create a voluntary, pay-for-performance system that compensates teachers who work in the most challenged schools and rewards teachers for student achievement.
The average salary for South Carolina teachers is $47,421 - which is tied by state law to the Southeastern average - but that includes the certification stipend. The average is $870 less for teachers who don't go through the rigorous evaluation process that can take three years.
Anderson recommended that lawmakers develop a pilot teacher bonus program to start in 2011-12. She noted it was too late to start such a system next school year, since teacher contracts go out in the spring.
The oversight committee also recommended requiring school officials to allow students transfers if a school posts the worst of the state's five report card ratings for three consecutive years. Rep. Roland Smith, chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee, said the idea gives him "heartburn."
Smith said there are questions about paying for transportation and further crowding growing districts.