Southern Politics

SC State Superintendent Of Education Mick ZaisSC’s Zais wrong to partisanize federal grant money at expense of students.

If you want a textbook example of how partisan ideology is trumping intelligence, look no farther than South Carolina’s Mick Zais, the retired general who is now the state’s superintendent of education.

Last week in the oddest of pronouncements, Zais (who in speeches robotically says “rhymes with face”) said the state wouldn’t compete to get a $10 million to $50 million grant from a $200 million federal pool of money to improve public schools.

Lots of people don’t understand how he’s giving up before the contest begins. One statewide newspaper even editorialized that state legislators should force him to apply for the money.

A few months back when Democrat Jim Rex was state superintendent, South Carolina applied for federal Race to the Top grant funding and apparently got pretty close to the prize. Now it and eight other states have been given a chance to compete for the new funding.

But Zais said he was opposed to the grant process because it would expand the federal role in education “by offering pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington.”

Hogwash. The general’s narrow-minded ideology is trumping intelligence and is counter to what’s right for South Carolina’s kids. Giving up without trying seems to be the opposite of what any American general is trained to do. The guy who is supposed to be charging ahead to make schools better for all kids – not just Republican kids – is waving the white flag to get back some of the federal tax dollars we’ve already paid. It’s a preemptive surrender.

“It is not ‘federal intrusion’ or ‘federal mandates’ that are impeding student achievement in South Carolina’s schools but rather insufficient human capital, poverty and low expectations,” said noted national education reform consultant Hayes Mizell of Columbia, who added that local school districts in South Carolina have lost 4,300 employees in the last year.

“Race to the Top funding would not solve these problems, but it would help local school districts address them,” Mizell said. “Blaming the federal government for South Carolina’s woes is a tactic the state’s leaders have used for two centuries, but there is no evidence the state is better off for it.”

Earth to Zais: Maybe we need these so-called government strings. Why? Because what’s been happening so far with us at the bottom of education lists hasn’t been working out that well, especially when you consider the future.

Did you know, for example, that India has more honor students right now than there are students in the United States? And just about all of them speak English? This and a host of other interesting tidbits about the future are in a must-see video that Sony’s board of directors viewed a couple of years ago.

So instead of wallowing in partisan blather about smaller government and trying to get vouchers to let people use public school money for private education, South Carolina’s education leaders need to enact strategies of TRANSFORMATIONAL reform that will overhaul how South Carolina’s children learn.

How about universal 4-year-old kindergarten, for example? According to state education officials, some 18,293 of the state’s 4-year-olds already are in some kind of half- or full-day program funded by state and local dollars. Another 4,678 poor students in poor school districts that sued the state for providing less than a “minimally adequate” education are in the sixth year of a court-mandated pilot education program for 4-year-olds. About 500 kids in the same counties are getting 4K training in non-school settings. And somewhere around 10,000 young students are getting 4K help through Head Start.

That leaves between 16,000 and 20,000 South Carolina 4-year-olds who may not be getting early childhood education, educators say. And they agree roundly that the earlier kids can get in school, the more prepared they are down the road. In turn, that will make them more successful in later years, which might help get South Carolina off the bottom of all of those lists.

It wouldn’t be cheap to implement universal 4-K schooling, but we’re already halfway there. If we can do more even earlier, we might not have as many costly future problems, including having a large chunk of the workforce being not ready to compete with all of those honor students in India.

Yes, Zais may rhyme with “face,” but it also rhymes with “disgrace.”

Andy Brack, publisher of Statehouse Report, can be reached at [email protected]

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Andy Brack

Andy Brack

Andy Brack is a syndicated columnist in South Carolina and the publisher of StatehouseReport.com. Brack, who holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also publishes a twice-weekly newsletter about good news in the Charleston area, CharlestonCurrents.com. A former U.S. Senate press secretary and reporter, Brack has a national reputation as a communications strategist and Internet pioneer. Brack also is president and chairman of the Center for a Better South, a nonprofit regional think tank. Brack received a bachelor’s degree from Duke University. He, his wife, two daughters and dogs live in Charleston, S.C.