Scoppe: Boy, did I ever misjudge this candidate

07/29/2014 9:00 PM

07/29/2014 6:49 PM

WHEN IT comes to political arrogance, it’s hard to top a lame-duck elected official who announces that he will approach a time-sensitive task that affects every school in our state by squandering time and money pursuing an ideological agenda that was just rejected in his own party’s political primary and in any event stands practically no chance of being enacted.

Did I mention that the Legislature whose direction he claims to be following pointedly refused to endorse his approach?

It seems nearly pointless to kick Education Superintendent Mick Zais on his way out the door, particularly since it seems unlikely that he could actually succeed in his plan to sabotage our state’s education standards — any changes have to be approved by two state boards whose chairmen reject his interpretation of the law.

But the fact is that his parting mission to purge the state education standards of any vestiges of Common Core will waste yet more money and time, and so something needs to be said.

Which is this: I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I endorsed Mick Zais in the 2010 general election. I was clearly wrong.

The endorsement wasn’t my doing alone, and it contained a lot of caveats, including this extraordinary conclusion: “There is no question that it’s risky, but we have concluded that Dr. Zais has enough potential to do good that it is worth taking the chance that the Legislature will continue to wisely reject the few bad ideas that he has adopted.”

Endorsing Dr. Zais’ opponent probably wouldn’t have made a difference; after all, the one Democrat we did endorse for statewide office lost, even though there was a much brighter line separating Vincent Sheheen and Nikki Haley than the one separating Dr. Zais and his opponent. But I argued for the endorsement. I wrote the endorsement. I even wrote an accompanying column singing Dr. Zais’ praises. I was clearly wrong.

This is not something that I’ve only just realized. It has been obvious for some time. Obvious that I was wrong to believe that he was in fact fixated on making sure poor kids got the best shot we could provide them to get an education, and not on pandering to his political base. Obvious that I was wrong to believe his assurances about he didn’t support anything beyond the most modest and targeted efforts, aimed at poor kids, to subsidize private schools. Obvious that I was wrong not to be concerned about someone who so adamantly rejected substantial data that show well-designed 4-year-old kindergarten programs pay off. Obvious that I was wrong to believe that his can-do pragmatism would prevail over the extremist ideology he had adopted on the campaign trail.

I should have recognized that Dr. Zais’ flee from pragmatism was not a temporary thing when he refused to apply for federal stimulus funds to avoid laying off more teachers. And when he refused to apply for a federal Race to the Top grant of up to $50 million that we were practically guaranteed to receive, and mischaracterized that program as enabling federal intrusion, when in fact it supported the very smart innovations he supported

I should have figured it out from his dust-ups with the Education Oversight Committee and the State Board of Education and his fixation over giving schools letter grades (which makes sense, but is simply not a big deal). Should have figured it out from that subtle shift in tone from previous education superintendents — from emphasizing our improvement while calling for more work to emphasizing our shortcomings.

But I didn’t want to acknowledge how deeply wrong I had been. So I looked the other way. Made apologies for him. Said, “Oh, he doesn’t really believe that; he’s just playing to his base.” Or, “That was taken out of context.”

And you know, that’s what most of us do when we hear troubling information about people and ideas we support. But eventually, I had to acknowledge that there really was a problem — which is something that too many of us never do.

I was so relieved when he said he wouldn’t run for re-election this year. My error could just go away quietly.

But he refuses to go away quietly, and now he has gone completely and totally over the edge in his opposition to Common Core, the standards that educators from South Carolina and other states spent years writing and then the Obama administration came along and started encouraging those states to adopt as guidelines for what students need to learn. You can probably guess at what point ideological critics started objecting.

The Legislature passed a law this year that required the Education Department to start a review of the Common Core English and math standards by Jan. 1, and have any revisions in place by the start of the 2015 school year. The law says the revisions should ensure that the standards are “maintaining high expectations for learning and teaching,” but Dr. Zais says he is “not even going to have a copy of Common Core state standards in the room for the writing panels.” Instead, he will have his review panels work from the pre-Common Core standards — the ones that were less academically rigorous. He also seems determined to finish the review by January.

Because, I suppose, he is his own last hope of completely stripping any vestiges of Common Core from our school curricula, since Republican voters rejected all of the education superintendent candidates who believe it is the work of the Antichrist, and none of the Democratic candidates wanted to abandon it. Because it looks as though we’re going to elect a responsible education superintendent, who actually cares about educating the children of South Carolina rather than pandering to the most extreme elements in the party.

It is true that some legislators are just as fanatical about Common Core as Dr. Zais, and that there is some disagreement over precisely what the new law means. But this is also true: Common Core opponents introduced legislation to strip Common Core from our standards; their bill did not pass.

The House is the hotbed of political extremism — on both sides of the aisle — yet the bill the House passed did not propose to eliminate Common Core; it didn’t even propose to speed up the seven-year cyclical review of standards and tests that predates Common Core. It simply required that in the future, the Legislature sign off on new standards and assessments. The Senate added the language requiring the Education Department to speed up its scheduled review, and to have any revised English and math standards in place for the 2015 school year instead of 2017.

That would be a daunting task no matter what. It will be even more daunting if the Education Department wastes six months on a quixotic exercise that the new education superintendent has to throw out and begin anew. But Dr. Zais will be able to say that he did all he could to kill Common Core, which apparently is what matters most to him.

I’m very sorry about that.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

About Cindi Ross Scoppe

Cindi Ross Scoppe

@cindiscoppe

Cindi Ross Scoppe has covered state government and the General Assembly since 1988, first as a reporter and now as an editorial writer. She focuses on tax policy, public education, election and campaign finance law, the relationship between state and local government, the relationship between the people and their government, the judiciary and the executive branch of government. More

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