Newberry College president Mitchell "Mick" Zais said Thursday he will run for the Republican nomination for state superintendent of education in 2010.
The 62-year-old Zais, a retired Army brigadier general, has been Newberry's president for 10 years.
Candidates have been slower to join the superintendent's race than other offices on the 2010 ballot.
Furman University political science professor Brent Nelsen announced his candidacy for the GOP nomination after an abortive bid for governor. Dutch Fork High School teacher Kelly Payne also has opened a campaign account but has yet to announce formally for the Republican nomination.
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Greenville attorney Frank Holleman is the sole Democrat to launch a bid.
Democrats have held the office for 12 years. However, Jim Rex, who is not seeking re-election so he can run for governor, won the 2006 superintendent's race by only 455 votes.
"Democrats tend to have an issue advantage with education as they are perceived as the 'pro-education' party ... sort of like Republicans tend to get labeled the 'pro-business' party," Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said.
Tax credits or vouchers for parents who send their children to private school have been one of the hottest, most contentious issues in recent education races. School choice is in the S.C. Republican Party platform, but many suburban, conservative-leaning voters are happy with their public schools.
Zais said he does not support tax credits for all students but would support a program targeted to students attending low-performing schools.
Zais also said businesses and donors should be able to claim a tax deduction for scholarship donations to private schools - a concept S.C. lawmakers tried to pass after early voucher bills failed in the Legislature.
"I'm not going to run to be in charge of private schools," he said. "You can't put your eggs in the private-school basket. For most young people, that's not an option."
That position could pose problems for Zais in June's GOP primary.
GOP candidates - like Zais - must avoid being "submarined" in their party's primary as not "pure" enough on the tax-credit issue, Huffmon said.
But, if he survives the primary, Huffmon added, "A GOP candidate who has voiced opposition to a statewide 'choice' plan and has a track record in education like that could play quite well in the general election."
Zais said if elected, he would focus on improving the reading skills of elementary-school students. Data, he said, show those with poor reading skills are more likely to drop out. About a quarter of S.C. adults do not have a high-school diploma, he said, but only about a tenth of jobs in the state require no high-school diploma.
Zais touted his experience organizing military operations and running Newberry as proof he can work effectively with the competing constituencies that a superintendent must deal with, including parents, teachers, school boards and lawmakers.
He said he would work with the General Assembly on school funding issues but said "the superintendent really can't change that."
"The amount of money is probably adequate," he said. "It's not being spent in the right way."
Zais is married and has two children. He will leave his position at Newberry College in June.
Analysts said Zais' experience - particularly his background raising money for Newberry - should make him a serious contender.
"Connections to alumni and fundraising is the main thing you need in this race," said Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard.
According to the most recent campaign finance reports, Holleman has $9,125 on hand.
Nelsen, who has been endorsed by Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, has raised $18,686 but has $7,282 on hand. Payne reported $299.67 in her initial disclosure.