May 1 (UPI) -- Thousands of teachers in South Carolina gathered outside the state's Department of Education on Wednesday calling for more funding and reforms to the school system.
Activist group SC for Ed organized the coordinated event, called "All Out May 1: A Day of Reflection." For the demonstration, thousands of teachers are taking a personal leave day to rally in Columbia asking for better pay, smaller classes and more counseling for students.
There were an estimated 10,000 at the rally by early Wednesday afternoon, The State reported.
"This is not a walkout. It is a day of reflection and an opportunity for teachers, parents, students and community members to express their concern about the state of education in South Carolina," the group said in a statement.
Organizers expected as many as 5,000 people -- including teachers and supporters -- to rally at the department's offices for speeches by educators, activists and state legislators. The event will then move down to the State House to appeal to lawmakers.
Seven South Carolina school districts closed Wednesday because there weren't enough substitute teachers to fill the void. Most schools in the state, however, were expected to open.
South Carolina Superintendent Molly Spearman criticized the teachers this week -- and pledged to help make up for the shortage by filling in as a substitute teacher herself.
"I support teachers using their voice to advocate for needed change and share in their commitment to ensuring reforms become reality," she said. "However, I cannot support teachers walking out on their obligations to South Carolina students, families and the thousands of hardworking bus drivers, cafeteria workers, counselors, aides and custodial staff whose livelihoods depend on our schools being operational."
SC for Ed said the reforms it advocates would make a positive impact on students, and the cost of the event Wednesday is small.
"Days of instruction are lost due to PTO parties, field days, assemblies, benchmark testing, standardized testing, discipline issues, to name a few," the group said. "One day to advocate for our current students and the students we will teach in the future is a small price to pay."
The group also said achieving full funding for education would be a focus of the rally Wednesday.
Despite increases to teacher salaries in recent years, advocates say increases in funding were more than $500 short, per-student, of what's considered full funding. Fully funding the education system, they say, would allow the state to make good on increased teacher salaries, reduce class sizes, hire more counselors and persuade teachers to stay in their jobs.
Teachers will also call for changes to a sweeping education bill proposed by South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas that would raise teacher pay by $3,000 per year, improve training and dissolve under-performing school districts. The legislation stalled in the state Senate last week. The teachers want a pledge from legislators to introduce a new bill, aided by a committee of educators.
Wednesday's event follows a number of successful teacher strikes nationwide over the last year. Educators walked out in Denver, Los Angeles and Oakland this year demanding similar changes with wages and class sizes.