The Empty Politics of Teacher Attrition: SC Edition

Former South Carolina Governor Richard Riley, who would go on to be Secretary of Education, remains, for me, the gold standard of education governors.

Riley established education as a central agenda of a governor by launching SC’s commitment to the accountability movement linked to increasing teacher pay. My first year teaching in SC was the fall after Riley helped pass a significant teacher pay raise, in fact.

Over the next several decades, for example, George W. Bush parlayed education reform in Texas (the now discredited “Texas miracle”) into the White House and the historic No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era.

My entire career as a teacher has been in the hyper-accountability era of K-12 education grounded in accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing. I have offered critiques and advocated for finding a different way to do education because the accountability merry-go-round hasn’t served anyone well except politicians and the education market place.

Those good intentions and politically thoughtful strategies used by Riley in the early 1980s have, regretfully, devolved through W. Bush’s failed NCLB, Obama’s doubling down on accountability (focusing harsh accountability and bad science on teacher accountability and reform), and finally to today’s even more hostile environment toward teachers, who are routinely characterized as indoctrinators and groomers by Republican governors and other elected officials.

Only 14 years ago, this was the national antagonism toward teachers and teaching:

How to Fix America’s Schools, Time (8 December 2008)

The Bill Gates/Michelle Rhee era of stack ranking and value-added methods of evaluating teachers not only failed but also it further eroded the value of teaching and being a teacher.

While many of us in education felt that this had to be the low point of teacher bashing and education reform designed to dismantle education, we could not have envisioned the last few years, anchored in the final months of the Trump administration’s attack on the 1619 Project and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in education.

Along with Covid, curriculum bans targeting (falsely) Critical Race Theory (CRT), book bans and attacks on libraries, and charging educators with being indoctrinators and groomers have now resulted in historic teacher shortages and likely one of the national low points for being a teacher in a country founded in part on a commitment to universal public education as a corner stone of being a vibrant democracy.

One of the more virulent anti-teacher and anti-education governors in the nation (likely just behind Gov. Abbott in Texas and the worst, Gov. DeSantis in Florida) is right here in my home state of SC, Governor Henry McMaster.

Yet, Gov. McMaster wants to have his cake and eat it to—but this will prove to be mere rhetoric and a disturbing example of how far the governorship has fallen since Riley:

Calling for a pay raise and a bonus to address the abysmal conditions of being a teacher in 2023 is yet another example of the empty politics of teacher attrition.

Should teachers be paid more?

Of course.

Is pay the root cause or even a major cause of teacher attrition?


For many decades, research has shown that teachers value far above pay how they are treated professionally within the building and by parents and the public, the teaching and learning conditions within which they work, and a whole host of issues that speak to their professional autonomy and authority.

For the sake of the field of education and teaching as a profession, we must stop taking politicians seriously who are unserious about education and teaching.

McMaster followed Abbott’s playbook early on by calling for book bans and suggesting teachers and schools use literature to groom children

McMaster speaks into the ugly and false narrative that teachers are “woke” indoctrinators who have infiltrated K-12 schools with CRT.

Waving a few dollars in one hand while stabbing people in the back with the other isn’t political leadership, and it certainly is not a solution for teacher attrition.

Beleaguered Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy didn’t take even a few breaths before declaring that his Congress will end woke indoctrination in schools; McMaster and most Republicans have committed entirely to that playbook filled with lies and distortions.

I do hope teachers receive significant pay raises, but that will not save teaching or education.

Political assaults on curriculum, libraries and books, and teacher professionalism must stop immediately.

Political and public narratives accusing falsely teachers of being indoctrinators and groomers must stop immediately.

Teachers deserve first and foremost in 2023 a huge public apology by the Republican Party, and then, teachers deserve a commitment to teacher professionalism and autonomy as well as a different approach not grounded in accountability but in reforming teaching and learning conditions so teachers can teach better and students can learn more.

Political leaders must

  • address poverty and inequity in our children’s lives,
  • fully fund public education,
  • reject school choice and other schemes that divert from public schools,
  • address in-school inequities such as class size and access to courses and programs,
  • and start education reform with teachers, not political fads and boondoggles.

There is a bit more than irony to Republicans who have historically been politically negligent with the refrain “You can’t just throw money at it” but who can’t imagine anything past a meager pay raise and a bonus to address teaching and education—especially when they have been the key architects in their destruction.

We can do better. We should do better. We must do better.

How we treat and support teachers is how we treat and support students; teaching conditions are learning conditions.

Maxine Greene has implored us in her Releasing the Imagination: “Community cannot be produced simply through rational formulation nor through edict,” Greene recognizes (p. 39), adding:

Community is not a question of which social contracts are the most reasonable for individuals to enter. It is a question of what might contribute to the pursuit of shared goods: what ways of being together, of attaining mutuality, of reaching toward some common world. (p. 39)

Releasing the Imagination

Yes, teachers are the key to public education, which is the key to democracy and freedom. But Greene’s call now stands as the opposite of the education system being created by Republicans

This brings me back to my argument that we teachers must make an intensified effort to break through the frames of custom and to touch the consciousness of those we teach. It is an argument stemming from a concern about noxious invisible clouds and cover-ups and false consciousness and helplessness. It has to do as well with our need to empower the young to deal with the threat and fear of holocaust, to know and understand enough to make significant choices as they grow. Surely, education today must be conceived as a model of opening the world to critical judgments by the young and their imaginative projections and, in time, to their transformative actions. (p. 56)

Releasing the Imagination

Republicans are unserious about teaching, teachers, and education. We cannot afford to continue to take them seriously.