COLUMBIA, S.C. – It seems that most states are looking to reform their K-12 public education system, either out of necessity – lack of money, low student achievement – or on the principle that families should have the right to choose their child’s education.
South Carolina is no different. During the current legislative session, state lawmakers are expected to consider a number of education reforms, including the possibility of increasing the number of charter schools in the state, linking teacher pay to student learning, and giving principals the power to fire ineffective teachers.
What distinguishes the Palmetto State’s K-12 reform debate from all the others is that it’s being led by an outspoken, retired Army brigadier general and former college president who is eager to take on the “liberal education establishment.”
State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, a Republican, won election in 2010 by a huge margin of 108,000 votes. He has been in office for just over a year, but he has rankled lawmakers of both political parties by refusing to accept federal education dollars from President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative that gives states money in exchange for approved school reforms.
While other states are eager for the federal assistance, Zais argues that the one-time handouts come with strings attached and quickly turn into unfunded mandates, ultimately driving up education costs and stripping local communities of control over their schools.
“We don’t have a shortage of dollars in South Carolina’s schools, we have a shortage of accountability, competition and incentives,” Zais toldEAG.
South Carolina spends $11,700 per student, slightly above the national average.
“If South Carolina had accepted its slice of the Race to the Top pie, it would equal $2.22 per student per year, for four years,” Zais said. “The idea that $2.22 would make a big difference is just nonsense. That’s not even a rounding error.”
Such views have drawn the ire of the “education industrial complex,” Zais’ term for those who place the interests of adult school employees ahead of the needs of students, and who claim failing public schools can be fixed with a checkbook.
“Traditional proposals for improving education – more money, better facilities, improved curriculum and smaller classes – will not work. We’ve tried that. We’ve tried that for 40 years,” Zais recently told an audience, according to the IndependentMail.com.
Zais told EAG that while the nation’s teachers unions – the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers – comprise the heart of the “education industrial complex,” they are enabled by weak-willed Republicans.
“The education industrial complex is bipartisan,” Zais said. “We have RINOs – Republicans in Name Only – who are intimidated by the lobbying groups that get the public and the teachers all excited that we’re trying to destroy public education. In reality, we want to make it better and more accountable.”
To achieve those ends, he believes local schools must be given more authority and responsibility.
“There’s too much control coming out of Washington and Columbia,” Zais said.
‘Our traditional schools have a monopoly’
The quality of South Carolina’s public schools spans the spectrum, from one of the nation’s best – Academic Magnet High School in North Charleston – to some of the worst.
According to Zais, a lack of competition and accountability has made too many traditional, government-run schools complacent and ineffective. And the students are the ones to suffer.
“Our traditional schools have a monopoly,” Zais said. “And monopolies have little incentive for improving or controlling costs. Accountability, competition and incentives have the power to transform the system.”
Zais’ education reform proposals are designed to break that monopoly.
Central to his agenda is allowing public universities to authorize charter schools, a practice that occurs in 12 states. The measure passed the stateHouse of Representatives last year, but is still awaiting action in the state Senate.
Currently, the power to sponsor a charter school rests primarily with South Carolina’s local school districts, most of which don’t want to lose students or the funding that comes with them. This aversion to competition explains why only 34 district-sponsored charters exist in the state. Only one percent of South Carolina students attend the alternative public schools, according to the Center of Public Education.
Zais also favors linking compensation for teachers and principals to students’ academic growth, rather than basing pay on an employees’ level of college education or years of service. Bonuses would be given to educators who teach “hard to staff” subjects such as math and science, or work in schools that have difficulty attracting top talent.
He advocates giving superintendents the power to hire and fire principals, and giving principals the power to hire and fire teachers.
“If we’re going to hold principals accountable, we must give them flexibility in how they do their job,” he said.
“I like to use the example of a football coach. He has got to be able to hire his assistant coaches. You can’t hold the coach accountable if the athletic director is hiring assistant coaches and recruiting the players.”
Other elements of Zais’ education reform plan include the Teacher Protection Act, which shields school employees from frivolous lawsuits stemming from student discipline issues.
He also wants to remove “onerous hiring obstacles” that keep highly qualified professionals – such as nurses, engineers and doctors – out of the classroom, simply because they don’t have the conventional teacher credentials.
“We’re closing the door to a lot of highly qualified people,” he said.
A closer look at the ‘education industrial complex’
While state superintendents such as Zais have the power to advocate for education reforms, the decision-making power rests with the state legislators. South Carolina is a politically conservative state, but that doesn’t mean Zais’ reforms will be warmly embraced.
His strongest opposition will likely come from local school officials, who wield a surprising amount of political power in the state.
South Carolina is a “right-to-work” state, which means teachers are not required to join their local union. That renders the South Carolina Education Association and the Palmetto State Teachers Association politically weak.
However, the state’s superintendents all belong to the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, and every school board member belongs to the South Carolina School Boards Association. The SCASA and the SCSBA fill the left-wing power vacuum created by the anemic teacher unions.
Neil Mellen, communications director at South Carolinians for Responsible Government, said these associations provide a variety of services to schools, such as consulting, professional development, and insurance.
“The state department of education is required by both state and federal law to do a certain amount of training and SCSBA/SCASA … are the only ones who can (or will) bid to complete the training within the terms of the law,” Mellen said.
Given the groups’ unique role in South Carolina’s education system, school districts pay for their school board officials and superintendents to become members of these organizations.
As a result, the two associations have multi-million dollar budgets, which allow them to hire a number of lawyers and lobbyists to represent their interests.
The local public school is typically the largest employer in a county, and the schools’ quality helps determine property values, Mellen said. So when district officials say a proposed reform will cost jobs or diminish the quality of the schools, voters pay attention.
“School board members and superintendents have a huge amount of political influence,” Mellen said. “These organizations are complex, well-funded, efficient political machines that can stop state reforms.”
And that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. They’ve attacked Zais’ agenda by opposing any expansion of charter schools and supporting legislation that would force him to accept federal education funds.
“Zais has a lot of institutional and systemic resistance, but he is popular with the people,” Mellen said. “But for the first time, the state superintendent office doesn’t serve as the de facto headquarters of the SCSBA or the SCASA.”