Politics & Government

Race for SC education chief warming up

South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais
South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais mbergen@thestate.com

Two state representatives, an attorney and retired football coach, are considering running against state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais.

Both of Zais’ possible challengers say they are driven, in part, by a desire to combat legislative efforts to use public money to help families send their children to private school – previewing the role the school-choice debate likely will play in the race.

The two are state Reps. Doug Brannon, a second-term Republican from Spartanburg and lawyer, and Mike Anthony, a six-term Union Democrat and retired high-school teacher and football coach with 30 years experience in public schools.

Anthony said his experience as an educator would “resonate with teachers” and help him “reach across party lines” – advantages for someone tasked with creating education policy.

Brannon was more critical of Zais. “The best way to improve education in South Carolina is not by tearing the system that we have down, but by supporting teachers and educators to do what they’re trained to do and to properly fund education.”

A private-school choice opponent, Brannon criticized what he called Zais’s “blatant and out-front support for school choice,” which, he said, “has nothing to do with school choice but has to do with diverting public money to private schools.”

In an interview with The State on Friday, Zais said his efforts to increase education options primarily have been focused on growing the number of public charter schools and strengthening charter school accountability laws.

Middle- and upper-income parents already have school choice in South Carolina, he said. “It’s only low-income families that are stuck in perennially failing schools and are trapped.”

But Zais also has drawn the ire of groups that represent teachers, school boards and administrators, which Zais calls “union-like education lobbying groups.” Those groups have criticized Zais’ plan to give teachers letter grades and use students’ test scores to evaluate teachers.

Zais has said grading teachers would help school districts identify low-performing administrators and teachers and provide recommendations for improvement. Low performers who do not improve should seek new professions.

Zais also has upset some in the education community by not asking for increases in the per-student funding that the state gives schools. Zais said Friday that he has not opposed increases, adding he has asked for more state money for textbooks and school buses at the request of administrators.

“I don’t sugarcoat the failures of some in the education establishment to provide every child a personalized and customized education,” Zais said in response to Anthony’s and Brannon’s interest in running against him. “The voters of South Carolina elected me – by a large margin – to transform education using student-centered solutions.

“It’s no surprise the political season would start at some point, but it will not distract me from the job I was elected to do by the people.”

Rep. Anthony said lines of communication between the Department of Education and public school employees have eroded – a problem his experience in public schools could help remedy, he said.

Competing for the spotlight

Zais was elected in 2010, winning more than 51 percent of the vote to Democrat Frank Holleman’s 43 percent. In the win, Zais wrested from Democrats the party’s only statewide office.

Prior to his election, Zais was the president of Newberry College for 10 years. He also spent 31 years on active duty with the U.S. Army, serving in infantry and command positions, retiring as a decorated brigadier general.

Zais has not launched his 2014 campaign yet but says he will run for a second four-year term – his last if he wins, he said, adding he will not seek any higher offices. “This is not about politics for me – this is about making a difference.”

With less than $2,000 in the bank, Zais has not raised any money in the past seven quarters and owes $45,000 on a campaign loan, according to his July report.

Zais is not worried.

In less than a year, he raised about $200,000 for his 2010 run and spent about $300,000 on the primary, runoff and general election. Democrat Holleman spent twice that.

Running for superintendent of education, a lesser-known statewide office, is always a challenge, especially when competing for campaign contributions with higher profile races, said University of South Carolina political science professor Mark Tompkins.

The 2014 race for governor – the state’s first-ever general election rematch, between Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen – and two U.S. Senate contests next year may steal the spotlight and draw the most campaign contributions, Tompkins added.

But the school choice issue could energize the race, he said.

“Folks with extra money are hoping to advance the cause of school choice,” he said. “Folks on the other side of the controversy may be more motivated because they know what the stakes are.”