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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina legislators will consider increasing teachers' salaries next school year as a way to keep young teachers in the profession and be fair to those approaching the end of their career.

The state Department of Education is researching the cost of boosting salaries both on the front and back ends of teachers' careers. In South Carolina, teachers are paid according to their degree and years of experience.

The minimum salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree is $29,589, although school districts can choose to pay higher. After 22 years of service, the minimum tops out at $45,466. With a master's degree, the minimum would be $51,468. Under the state schedule, no increases for experience are required after 22 years in the classroom.

"We'd love to put additional pay across the lines," newly elected state Superintendent Molly Spearman told a House budget-writing panel Tuesday. She recognized that's likely unfeasible, but added, "I do believe we can support that on the front end."

Her agency is crunching numbers on raising beginning salaries — which may require increases over the entire schedule — as well as extending steps through a phased-in approach.

Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said she'd love for legislators to increase salaries at both ends of the spectrum, but her first priority is to "reward teachers who have stayed in the classroom year after year."

As they compete for teachers, most districts use local property taxes to exceed the schedule's minimums, and many districts fund cost-of-living steps until retirement. But for teachers in less fortunate districts, the 22-year cap means their take-home pay is shrinking due to increases in health care premiums and pension contributions.

"We have teachers who are seeing less in their check this year than last," Maness said.

Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Cayce, called it a fairness issue.

"I think it's a reasonable request," said Bingham, chairman of the Ways and Means panel that writes the K-12 education budget. "It's difficult for anybody to operate on less money a year. Those are our most seasoned teachers."

But what he ultimately supports depends on the cost, he said.

Statewide, 25 districts — or 30 percent — stop step increases at 22 years' experience, while 31 districts — or 38 percent — continue paying steps to 30 years' teaching. Three go even further, according to district salary schedules collected by the state Department of Education.

The state last required additional salary steps a decade ago, extending from 20 years to 22. That was all the Legislature could afford to add in the state budget at the time, said now-House Education Chairwoman Rita Allison, R-Lyman.

She said she's particularly concerned with salaries in the early years, when too many teachers leave the profession. She hopes a salary boost could help persuade more of them to stay.

Of the nearly 5,300 teachers statewide who left their job during or at the end of last school year, for whatever reason, just over a third were within their first five years in the classroom, a rising trend. For 13 percent of those leaving, it was their first year teaching, according to the state's Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement.

A Senate panel studying ways to recruit and keep more good teachers has also suggested increasing starting salaries and extending the steps. Those were among the general recommendations forwarded to the Senate Finance Committee in December with no ranking and no dollar figures.

The panel's chairman, Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said then the state could give districts the option of paying more on the front or back ends of teachers' careers.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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