SPARTANBURG -- Mike Anthony became so popular in Union after successfully coaching three teams to state championships that he says he only invested $800 for a few campaign signs to win his first run for state office.
Anthony, who has been a state representative for Union County since 2002, is running for state superintendent of education — a battle he already knows will be hard fought.
Anthony, a Democrat from Union, spoke to the Spartanburg County Democratic Party during a lunch meeting Monday and explained the differences he sees between him and Mick Zais, a Republican and the current superintendent of education.
A retired teacher and football coach, Anthony said of Zais that he doesn't "believe in government" or "public education."
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"I don't know how you could be the superintendent over 700,000 kids that are in traditional or the charter school system and not believe in government," Anthony said.
Anthony said he knows the "bloggers" and Republican establishment will hit on his 2005 vote against funding the charter school system, but said he did so because there was no accountability. In 2012, Anthony said he voted for another bill that held charter schools accountable, and he's now a "big proponent" of charter schools and "choices" since there's no "one size fits all system" for every child.
If elected, however, Anthony said he would fight against vouchers for students to attend private school since such a system would segregate schools into the "haves" and "have nots."
Anthony said that if private schools are given the $2,100 base student cost from the state, the state must supplement additional funds with vouchers.
"What will happen to our public schools if we give money to private schools with no accountability," he asked.
During a telephone interview Monday afternoon, Zais emphasized that there's six months left before filing for his office begins and 14 months before the election. He said he currently is busy managing a staff of more than 800 and 82 school districts.
In response to Anthony's comments, Zais said high- and middle-income families have choices, but low-income families are the ones that continue to struggle in failing schools where the "ZIP codes determine their destiny."
"I support options for all school children," Zais said. "Whether it's charter, magnet, private or single-gender programs, I support them all."
Anthony, 63, said he retired as a teacher and coach in 2003 and could leave the legislature and "go play golf." But, he said, he has a passion for the profession, as well as for the work teachers and students do every day in the state.
"People think that teachers work four or five hours, have summers and weekends off, but my wife is a teacher and was up until 11:30 last night working on lesson plans," Anthony said. "Those are the people we need to be focused on. How we can make their lives easier, not harder?"
Anthony blasted Zais for refusing $144 million in federal funds that would have been used to stabilize teacher pay during a time when districts were laying off teachers because of funding problems.
"No other state in the nation refused the money, so that means your federal tax money and my federal tax money went to 49 other states," Anthony said. "Why? It's because of ideology. The tea party and other groups were worried about what it would look like if we took the money."
Zais disputed Anthony's characterization of refusing federal money.
"It's not true. It's a misrepresentation of the facts," Zais said. "That was before I was in office, and the reason the state didn't get the funds was because the General Assembly didn't meet the requirements imposed by the federal government for higher education funding."
Zais said the funds weren't stimulus funds, but EduJobs money.
Anthony said he will use the next 14 months to "get the message out," although he knows that people will still walk into the voting booth and vote "R."
"I've chosen to take it on, and I'm not afraid of the naysayers," Anthony said. "I'm used to being on the field at Union High School on Friday nights with 5,000 people calling plays for me. I don't care what they say ... it's time for teachers and former teachers to have a seat at the table where the decisions are being made."
Zais said the biggest difference between him and Anthony, so far, is that he supported scholarships for children with disabilities and special needs. The amendment that passed in 2013 would allow individuals and businesses to receive a tax credit for funding private scholarships.
Anthony touched on that bill briefly Monday. He said the bill would give tax credits to businesses such as Wal-Mart in exchange for offering scholarships that the business directs.
"It was taking money they would pay in taxes and letting them put it in a special pot that they control or choose where it goes," Anthony said. "Of course, I support children with special needs and disabilities, but there was no accountability with those funds."