Scoppe: The can-do candidate

Associate EditorOctober 17, 2010 

A FEW DAYS before Mick Zais announced that he was running for state superintendent of education, the media relations office at Newberry College sent me an op-ed submission from the school president, who also served on the highly respected Southern Regional Education Board.

The column by Dr. Zais was a combination pep talk and call to action that laid out a smart set of ideas for dealing with low high school graduation rates, which the SREB has long considered one of the most crucial problems confronting Southern states: focus on reading; give principals the authority to reward the best teachers and get rid of the worst ones; concentrate state efforts on those schools with the worst graduation rates; and get parents more engaged and responsible.

I am not at all comfortable with the fact that Dr. Zais felt the need to add “pay for students to go to private schools” to his prescription after he morphed from college president into Republican political candidate — although the political pragmatist in me understands why anyone would conclude, after watching what happened four years ago, that Republicans who don’t toe the Howie Rich line need not apply for education superintendent.

But there’s a lot about Dr. Zais to like (including the fact that he has gone on record saying he will not accept any money from puppetmaster Rich) — and a lot to not dislike.

At the top of the likeable list: Mick Zais knows the children South Carolina isn’t educating. He served alongside them as an Army paratrooper and Ranger, commanded them as he worked his way up to brigadier general, watching and helping them blossom when they finally got the kind of attention and direction they needed. For the past decade, he brought them to Newberry College — while pulling the school out of debt and off academic probation — and helped them become more than most people thought they could. This is a man who truly understands the problems that most candidates acknowledge (if at all) merely on an intellectual level.

When he met with our editorial board earlier this month, he told us story after story of young people he knew who grew up in poor homes, where education wasn’t valued, who were able to get on track when someone took the time to push them along. He also talked of being the first to tell students who barely had the grades to make it into his college that they were not going to get into medical school — and helping them discover what their gifts were. This is a man who believes to his core in individual human potential. “I don’t know if I’m naive or arrogant to think I can make a difference,” he said. “Not one hundred percent, but certainly ninety-five percent of students have the potential to be somebody.”

When we asked whether he would oppose the sort of wide-open tuition tax credit bill that proponents keep introducing instead of the plans targeted to poor kids that they claimed to be pushing, he pointed to his 2002 column in our newspaper (rightly) calling for the state to devote more money to need-based scholarships and less to merit scholarships. “Have I said that LIFE is a subsidy for middle-class parents?” he asked. “Yes, I’ve said that. I could have afforded” college tuition, but his children received LIFE scholarships. “My point is, I’ve been a strong advocate for poor kids ever since I’ve come to Newberry College.”

A 2003 Charlotte Observer article about the turn-around at Newberry painted him as a take-charge leader who made professors work more, but raised their salaries, who got personally involved in making sure freshmen returned, improved relations with the town, tripled private giving to the school and came up with innovative ways to rebuild a dwindling student body. Student body President Kevin Strickland gushed about the president: “He eats in the cafeteria, he attends the sporting events, he comes to lectures, he attends chapel on Tuesday morning. If you’re in the newspaper, he’ll cut the clipping out and write a note of thanks and put it in your campus mailbox.”

Little things caught my attention as well when we met with Dr. Zais. He talked about South Carolina’s “on-time graduation rate” being too low. He didn’t throw out misleading or hysterical statistics, and he didn’t call it a “drop-out rate.” That’s the difference between people who are trying to talk honestly about a significant problem and those who are trying to make the problem sound so much worse than it even is that we’ll throw up our hands in despair and say we can never solve it.

Another telling moment came when he talked about a charter school that spends three hours a day on reading and noted that, the previous day, the president had spoken about the need for a longer school day and a longer school year. This should not be the sort of thing to impress anyone, but the sad fact is that too many Republicans today can’t even say the word “president” without adding “socialist,” and worse, much less acknowledge a point of agreement.

Perhaps I am the one being naive, in believing that Dr. Zais is just going through the motions when he recites the litmus-test nonsense about taxpayer support for private schools, or that even if he really believes it doesn’t consider it a priority. But our schools have some difficult times ahead of them, and I see in Dr. Zais someone who brings the can-do attitude and demonstrated leadership skills that could go a long way in helping them to not only survive but thrive.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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