Paid Parental Leave for South Carolina’s Teachers: A Legislative Victory for Teacher Retention

Start listening

Jump to Transcript

On this episode, we sit down with Erin Rigot, instructional coach and co-founder of Exposed Resilience, and Catherine Schumacher, CEO of Public Education Partners. These two played instrumental roles in the historic push to establish paid parental leave for teachers in South Carolina – a first in the South. Listen in as Erin narrates her personal journey, igniting the spark for this change during her own pregnancy. Catherine amplifies the conversation, outlining the crucial partnership, research, and evidence that allowed their advocacy to triumph.

This candid conversation highlights how advocates can turn a personal challenge into a collective victory, and shows the power of teachers’ voices in shaping the policies that affect their lives and profession. This episode is a must for anyone interested in educational policy, advocacy, or just curious about the real-life impact of determined educators using their voices to effect change.


Katy Smith: On today’s episode, you’ll hear from Erin Rigot, teacher and instructional coach at League Academy and mom of a kindergartner who was shocked to learn when she was pregnant that teachers didn’t qualify for paid parental leave in our state. She championed an effort to get paid parental leave for public school educators, making South Carolina the first in the South to offer this important benefit.

Today she talks with Catherine Schumacher, CEO of Public Education Partners, which partnered with Erin and many other organizations and advocates to successfully pass and sign the bill into law this legislative session. They are interviewed by Derek Lewis, Executive Director of Greenville First Steps and Advocacy Chair with Greater Good Greenville.

Derek Lewis: Thanks everyone for joining us today. We’re here with Catherine Schumacher from Public Education Partners. Catherine, I’m glad to have you with us.

Catherine Schumacher: Thank you. It’s exciting to be here.

Derek Lewis: And Erin Rigot is here as well. Erin, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Erin Rigot: Sure. I am an instructional coach at League Academy here in Greenville County Schools. Um, and I also am a co-founder of Exposed Resilience, which is a educational leadership consulting business.

Derek Lewis: So we are here today to talk about paid parental leave. Now I have to say that, you know, this, this conversation came to me as a shock, um, because being married to a school teacher when last year the general assembly gave all state employees paid leave, I thought she got it and, and was shocked to learn that school teachers are not state employees until they started asking for paid leave and then learned themselves, oh, actually we, we didn’t mean you, or there was a glitch.

So, Catherine, let’s start out maybe by just talking a little bit about the paid parental leave bill. What, what’s in it and how is it different from what happened last year?

Catherine Schumacher: Sure. So, 3908 is the paid parental leave bill. It was just signed into law by Governor McMaster. The, the sort of lead, um, sponsor of the bill was, uh, representative Neal Collins out of Easlye and we’re grateful to him for, for sort of taking the lead on that. But the idea of the behind paid parental leave is really to extend to our educators in South Carolina the same kind of benefit that was extended to state employees in the last session.

So it’s, um, six weeks paid leave for the birth adoption fostering of a child with two weeks for a co-parent. So, it’s the same benefit, paid benefit that’s offered to other state employees. And it really was just an issue of equity. And so, so that’s where we are. It goes into effect June 25th or 26th, I think.

And, uh, we’re just really grateful that it has moved forward.

Derek Lewis: Catherine, I know we’ve talked a lot about teacher retention and you know, this is definitely one of those, one of those issues that came up particularly with younger teachers who are getting out of college and are thinking about starting a family and are now learning that they’re not eligible for, for paid leave.

So can you maybe just talk a little bit about maybe some of the work you guys have done?

Catherine Schumacher: For us, as we were sort of thinking about what are some things that we can advocate for, um, it was really about trying to find something positive too. Um, and really, you know, at PEP we really center teachers and we center teacher voice as a, really, as one of sort of the core components of our work.

So we were sort of looking at different issues and we too were surprised when the sleeve bill went through for state employees. And we were like, oh, teachers, because they’re district employees, aren’t eligible. So, you know, for us, we always start with the data. So, so you know, what do, what did we learn about what are some things that would be sort of low hanging fruit?

And this came up as the sort of the lowest of the low hanging fruit in a moment when teacher retention and recruitment is a core issue in South Carolina and our legislators are paying attention to it and talking about it. So we thought it was a really great synergy between things we were interested in and sort of the moment.

And, you know, 80% of the educators in South Carolina are women. A third of those, a third of, you know, are under the age of 40. And it just seemed like a really good story. And, you know, advocacy is about how do you combine data and storytelling in a really powerful way. And so, for us at PEP, we’ve been really focused on how do we encourage teachers to use their firsthand knowledge of what is going on in classrooms to advocate for themselves in a way that is knowledgeable, you know, cognizant of the universe in which we are advocating, and effective. And so, you know, we have done some work with the, we have a teacher fellows program that sort of trains educators in the ecosystem of teacher advocacy.

And Erin actually is, was part of the first cohort of that group. So she sort of, learned a little bit about, you know, about the water, that if you’re an advocate in K-12 public education in South Carolina, it’s the water you’re gonna be swimming in. So, for us it was a really great opportunity to support some of our educator friends and, you know, align with like-minded organizations that had this, that shared the same concerns and, and move something forward.

Derek Lewis: So Erin, as, as we think about paid leave and we think about six weeks of leave for a parent, you know, one of the, one of the conversations that, that I heard a lot as this, as this topic was being discussed was, well, we already have sick leave. So talk to me a little bit about the difference between your need for sick leave as a parent who works in an education community, and your need for paid parental leave.

Erin Rigot: I think. A lot of us are in the teaching world, and I know I personally felt very naive, um, looking back on my pregnancy journey because I kind of just assumed that it would all work out because I, I did what I was, what I felt supposed to do. I tried really hard to make sure I had a baby at the end of the school year, so I wouldn’t have a huge impact on my staff and my students and, and that I would not have to take as much leave. Um, but I think there’s a huge misunderstanding with FMLA and how it protects your job. It does not pay you. And so you really have to have short term disability in place. You have to use your sick days.

Um, but that was something I think a lot I’m learning as I talk to fellow younger teachers, especially the teachers in my building that have had, um, babies recently, that there’s a really big miscommunication about “oh, well, I see my coworkers go out on leave and have their babies and it all seems fine to work out.”

And so I know I had that mentality when I got pregnant back in 2016. So that was a huge wake up call when, um, I realized that I was gonna have to use my sick days. Part of my story was that we did use sick days as long as we could. But I think what people don’t understand is sick days need to be reserved for anything, so, whether someone in your family gets sick, whether you get sick, and you only have so many each year.

Now they do roll over from year to year unlike our personal, but if somebody has any kind of medical situation that requires them to be out of work, those are sick days. And so if you’re using those for your maternity leave, you’re left with nothing. You are left with nothing the following year for your kid to get sick or, um, for your spouse or your partner, whoever might be sick in your family are using those sick days.

So thankfully we are now in a spot where we are getting the same six weeks. Um, and if you’re a partner, two weeks. And that is an amazing win for teachers across the state.

Catherine Schumacher: I think at a time when we’re trying to support families and children and parents and it’s just, it’s smart. It’s just a smart pro-family play. Particularly for our educators, teachers spend more time with my children during the day, during the weekday, during school year than I do.

So to know that they’re being taken care of more, um, I think is just a really, really smart investment.

Derek Lewis: One of the questions that I have been asked a lot over the last several months is how did we get from identifying this need to getting a bill passed through the house and the Senate and signed by the governor within nine months? Talk maybe through those steps of how did you get from, “Oh my gosh. This is a problem that we need to fix,” to a signing day.

Erin Rigot: One of the biggest things is teachers need to understand that their voice matters. I think that’s something that we’re still trying to instill. I know I’m still trying to instill that with my own staff. But if there is a problem that a teacher sees as a huge need to be fixed, they have got to use their voice to speak up.

Cause nobody knows what we do every day. Nobody. I think there’s a huge miscommunication of, “because I went to school, I know what it’s like to be an educator,” and that is so not the case. It’s like walking into a doctor’s office and saying, well, I’ve been to a doctor’s office so I know how to be a doctor.

There’s so much more that goes into teaching. There’s so much more that goes into being an educator in 2023, especially post covid. we are really having to adapt in new ways. And so I, I think the first thing is teachers need to understand that their voice matters. And that people actually do wanna hear their stories, but there’s no one sharing their stories.

So if we can start getting teachers to really think about what matters to them and then share how it’s impacted them, just with whoever will listen at first, really, I mean, just whoever wants to hear their story. That was where I started. I was happy to share my trauma of, of childbirth and going without pay.

And I had, you know, my son two months early and then went from March to, to July without pay. Um, and so it was a huge, huge hard time, um, in our journey. But now I feel like that has come full circle because we went from a story that I was just trying to get anyone to listen to. To, um, doing the PEP advocacy group.

That was an amazing experience and really made me realize, oh, I do have a story to tell. I do need to keep talking about this. Of course there are about 10 other things I would love to talk about, but this is where we can start. This is something like Catherine mentioned is low hanging fruit that’s gonna impact and help us recruit and retain teachers.

We know that if teachers stay in over more than five years, they’re likely to stay. So I think that’s exactly about the time that teachers are starting to have families. So if we can give them to that five year mark and then we have this to offer them when they are ready to start a family, we’re talking about the exact right age range that we’re also trying to retain. So I think that is crucial to this development.

But as we take our stories and we start sharing them, in my case, what led me from PEP to where we are now was one, being invited. Like you said, it was a lot of other people involved and it was just so thrilling to be invited to the table. We’re not used to having a seat at the table. We’re not used to being involved at committee meetings or, um, different hearings.

Um, and then moving into being invited to speak and tell my testimony at the JCLCC. And then when the, um, traveling group of representatives came up to Greenville I shared that exact same testimony in front of the panel. That was a subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee. Did I say that right?

Catherine Schumacher: Yeah, it was out of, it was the South Carolina teacher Recruitment Retention Task force.

Erin Rigot: And so when I shared the testimony there, one of the panelist list, uh, was Patrick Kelly, who speaks on behalf of teachers all the time in Columbia. And so he invited me to the Ways and Means committee to share my testimony again. And so really it was just getting my, my issue and my voice about it on paper.

And then thankfully being invited to the table to share that across many different avenues, which then led me to the Ways and Means committee to share my testimony. Um, so that was, that was a really cool experience because as we know, teachers are not invited to Columbia very often.

Um, and so here we are today. It went from the House to the Senate and then back to the House, and now it’s signed.

Derek Lewis: You know, it’s, it’s good that you talked about the credibility that teachers bring with them, right? So if you’re, if you’re in a public hearing and you see a bunch of people in white coats, you automatically assume they’re all doctors and they’re all super smart and super well informed.

If you see a bunch of folks showing up dressed like local law enforcement. Then automatically they are experts on public safety. And yet teachers, we look at them the same way, right? They are the experts on what needs to happen with children and families and to improve outcomes for kids. And it’s, it is a real challenge to get teachers to understand that they have that same credibility that a sheriff’s deputy has, or that, you know, a pediatrician has. Catherine, you guys in the advocacy world have been really trying to shore up that work with teachers? Can you just talk through some of that?

Catherine Schumacher: I think the most important thing to recognize is that it is a complicated policy ecosystem, and that makes it intimidating too. And I think there’s a fear that you’re gonna say the wrong thing or you’re gonna get in trouble, or and I think in almost every scenario, as long as you understand the issue that you’re talking about, and you’re talking about your lived experience and you understand the impact and sort of where you want this, this piece of legislation or whatever to move forward…

There’s an opportunity to share your story and it’s, it’s about, you know, how do you do it? When’s the right time? And I think, you know, the sort of stages that Erin described, like, you know, we started going to the Joint Citizens Legislative Committee on Children, so, you know, Committee for Children. And then this listening tour of the, the Recruitment Retention Task Force came to town and we had another opportunity.

And then working with allied organizations that had also really prioritized this particular issue. I think that’s sort of, how do different organizations that are working together on similar issues plug each other into what they need and the advocates that they need and the storytellers that they need.

And I think this was a perfect example of, you know, there were a lot of organizations in the state who work on, you know, legislative work all the time. I’d heard Erin’s story. So one of the people she told her story to was me.

And so when we were sort of exploring, well, who would be good advocates around paid parentally for teachers? Erin was, you know, one of the first names that popped into my mind. And so giving that platform and it’s really about making opportunities and then just helping, helping shape that call to action.

Because I agree. I mean, I really do think that the opportunity is there and I think the more that we create space to bring the teachers to the table and have them at the table and have them feel confident that they understand the political ecosystem, the policy ecosystem that things can happen quickly.

When we started having conversations about this nine months ago, I, it never occurred to me that we would move this and that the team of allied, you know, PSTA and, and WREN and other organizations that were working on this would be able to kind of get this over the finish line.

And I think it’s a huge testament to the power of Erin’s testimony and to the power of collaborative action on a really, really important issue that resonated with a lot of folks.

Derek Lewis: So Erin, one of the first places I heard you tell this story was with the Committee on Children. So this is the Joint Citizens Legislative Committee on Children. It’s made up of agency department heads from across the state, three house members, three senate members, and three governor’s appointees. And they do these public hearings around the state where people can just come and they have three minutes to say whatever they wanna say and people have said whatever they wanted to say for years.

And I’ve just been. Shocked at people’s comfort with doing it. So maybe talk for a second about how that felt for you to give that testimony. Um, and maybe was it, was it easier or harder than you thought it was gonna be?

Erin Rigot: So it’s really interesting cause I, I’ve shared it a few times now and I think the most nerve-wracking it has been has been in front of my fellow colleagues, which is really interesting. But I think it’s cause I know them and I, you know, I’m sharing my story more widely with people I know that’s a little nerve-wracking.

When at the ways and meets committee and at, um, the event you’re speaking of, it really was not nerve wracking for me because I feel like I have continued to learn each year how much people don’t understand the world of teachers. And so when I have an opportunity to speak to a room that really does not understand the impact that educators are faced with every day.

I get really excited to share my story. It is to me a huge opportunity to kind of open a window in a lens of understanding that maybe they did not have when they walked in that room. So I was very thankful to know about that event and be invited to speak. And I think that’s part of it too. Like Catherine mentioned, being invited is a huge part because we would love to speak about a lot of issues as educators.

But I think the first thing teachers need to do to start sharing their story, other than talking about it, is to find groups that are gonna help them stay informed that they feel like they want to attach themselves to.

So for me, it was PEP I, that’s where I get my information. I know they’re going to keep me up to date. And I think that’s where it starts, right? So I think when it becomes a part of just who we are, and it’s so just a part of us sharing our story, when we start approaching it that way and start telling people how different things affect us, whether it’s lockdowns or paid parental leave, or our pay salary, whatever issue matters to us.

I think that’s step one is figuring out how to turn that into a story and start sharing it, but also start associating us ourselves with people that can help connect us and stay in that world and not make it feel like it’s so much extra work to stay involved. Cause that is what it feels like. For the past, this is my 13th year, I would say for the last three, I have felt like I have a very different shift of understanding my role in that.

Instead of feeling like, oh, I just can’t even, I can’t even think about it. I can’t even be involved just because it was too much. Right? So, um, and it was too overwhelming to learn the ecosystem and who to call and when to call. And so I think PEP does in a phenomenal job with their advocacy cohorts to start breaking that onion into layers and start understanding where to start with those different initiatives.

Derek Lewis: So Catherine, you know, one of the challenges with advocacy is to take a personal story, a me story, and turn it into a we story, right? So this is Erin’s story, but this is Erin’s story that is actually happening in districts around state all the time. Representative Collins was there with the JCLCC meeting, and then I think one of the next steps was for us to meet with him.

So just kind of talk about that, that how do, how do you take someone’s story and then make it so that people can understand that this story wasn’t unique to what happened at one middle school in Greenville County.

Catherine Schumacher: Right. And I think that’s the point where that sort of research and evidence is so critically important and so, and also, having partners, so, you know, so it wasn’t just Erin. Erin didn’t have to find time to go talk to Representative Collins. Like we were able to do that and sort of, you know, sort of follow up and have a really, you know, generative conversation about what it could look like and here’s what we think and providing our input and feedback. But I think to your point, the most important thing is to sort of look at what is happening in the field and having, having that kind of research evidence piece. And so we were already at PEP. We’d already looked at.

A couple of districts in the state were already doing paid leave. Um, other states were looking a little bit at paid leave. And so there was an opportunity to sort of present that competitive advantage argument too. Um, which I think is a really valuable case as well. And you can look at that sort of locally here in Greenville.

What can we do in Greenville to make this an attractive place for educators to come, but then also South Carolina, statewide, and I mean, we’re the first state in the south to do this, which is really extraordinary. So I think that from the individual to the global is really to put it in that context of, of if you have, you know, one teacher of what you know, and Greenville’s the largest district by far in the state of South Carolina, so, obviously Erin’s experience was a representative example of things, you know, that, that obviously, you know, she’s working in one of the largest, most successful districts.

I mean, think about from an equity standpoint, think about smaller districts that wouldn’t have the bandwidth to do this necessarily on their own. So I think that is another, a really, really critical step that we were able to kind of move forward.

Derek Lewis: Yeah. You know, one of the beautiful things about all of this working out is you, you have a story that you’ve told that resonates with a representative who is now the father of a newborn.

Catherine Schumacher: Right that the timing was also excellent

Derek Lewis: I would say he was interested and passionate about public education for decades before, but, You hear things differently when you think about, well, this is an experience my family has also encountered.

Catherine Schumacher: Finding a legislative champion is also really important when you’re trying to look at the sort of state level policy. How do you build those relationships? cause it is all relationship based and obviously you’ve served with rep Colles on the, you know, on the committee and so you knew him.

And that relational component of advocacy work cannot be overstated.

Derek Lewis: So it’s, it’s really fascinating to me as we, as we kinda see a connection between a policy issue and a local elected official, uh, representative Collins, the parent of a newborn is thinking differently about policy particularly around public education. And so, so Catherine kind of get us from Representative Collins is engaged to the finish line.

So how, how, how do you get from here to there?

Catherine Schumacher: Yeah, well, I think you almost have to go before, you know, Collins was on board because the really, a lot of the genesis of this was again, allies. And so Sisters of Charity, which is a supporter of PEP, had reached out to us and some other education minded folks in the state and said, we’re really interested in teacher retention.

What are some issues that we could bring together statewide advocates to to talk to the committee of children? About and this issue of paid parental leave really came to the fore. So that was sort of step one from our perspective in terms of, of PEPs focused advocacy around this. So then, you know, after Erin and, and, um, some other advocates spoke at the, the community children meeting here in Greenville, um, we had our conversation with Representative Collins at his office.

We were able to sort of be there when Erin couldn’t be. Which is important. And he filed the bill, it was referred, it, you know, was brought up on the house floor. It was referred to house ways and means, cause it has to do with budget. So there was a hearing, Erin spoke at the invitation of Patrick Kelly from the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

Meanwhile, you know, the advocacy team at the um, women’s Rights Empowerment Network, WREN, was also working on this issue cause they’re focused on family issues, issues relating particularly to women. There were a bunch of people kind of working behind the scenes.

Erin Rigot: And so to see that that whole journey has now been used to create change across the state just is really emotional.

It, it makes me really excited that others will be able to benefit from this change for forever.

Derek Lewis: Well, and I think you should feel really proud of what you did, cause I, I think it is a hard thing to convince somebody that it will be painless to go and speak before a group of people that you don’t know. But your testimony there led to a change in this state that will be impactful for families, for generations to come.

And I, I think you should really be proud of that work. I really thank you for your time. I thank PEP for all of its work and advocacy. Both public education partners and Greater Good Greenville have advocacy boot camps that are helping people think about how to tell their story and to bring their stories into policy change, and we are just so thankful to be a part of a community where that kind of work can happen and where people like you can do remarkable things.

So thank you.

Erin Rigot: Thank you guys. Wouldn’t be here without PEP, so, or you. So I think it’s important that we also note that, going back to the community piece, it just takes getting the right people involved and feeling like you have a seat at the table to share your stories.

Catherine Schumacher: Absolutely, there’s always room for more people at the table.

Derek Lewis: Well, thank you both for joining us. For anybody that’s interested in learning more about how they can get involved in advocacy and public policy work, they can visit Greater Good Greenville’s website where we have a calendar of future advocacy opportunities that people can get involved in. Thank you.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

Image via Wikipedia

Join the discussion