One is a West Point graduate who retired from the Army as a brigadier general. Mick Zais then took on a second career as president of Newberry College and is credited with turning the school around.
The other is a Harvard law school graduate who was U.S. deputy secretary of education under President Bill Clinton. Frank Holleman also helped found South Carolina’s school readiness program, First Steps.
The would-be state superintendents of education, Democrat Holleman and Republican Zais, are two of the
When the new school chief is sworn in, he will face one of the worst education funding outlooks ever seen in state history. S.C. schools are operating with about $750 million less this fiscal year than two years ago.
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While an infusion of nearly $700 million in federal stimulus money has softened the Great Recession’s impact, that money will be spent by June 30, the end of this fiscal year. That will translate into the loss of more teachers, art classes and afterschool programs, and larger class sizes and more furlough days for educators.
The winner also will have to grapple with the usual challenges that go with being the state’s school chief: overseeing curriculum standards, training and certification for the state’s 50,000 teachers; lobbying legislators for education changes; helping the state’s 85 school districts address their problems; and overseeing the state Department of Education’s nearly 900 employees.
Taxpayers want accountability from the school chief. Public schools represent the largest expenditure in the state’s general fund budget. Last year, $3.6 billion in federal and state money combined was spent on the state’s schools, paying for everything from testing to books to buses to teacher salaries.
Both candidates say there is both good and bad in the way S.C. schools are run now. However, they offer very different visions on how to improve the school system.
Here is a look at how they differ.
Federal help or intrusion?
Holleman is generally a supporter of federal help while Zais wants to limit it.For example, Holleman agrees with the state Department of Education’s recent application for $175 million in federal Race to the Top money. The state planned to use the money to improve struggling schools, boost graduation rates and pay more to teachers who get results in the classroom.Ultimately, however, South Carolina was not one of the states chosen for the federal money.
“We did well (in the competition) but not well enough,” Holleman said. “That’s a reason to try harder, not to retreat. I want us to compete with every state in the union. I want to be in the forefront of education reform in the country.”Holleman also supports the state’s inclusion in the common-core standards initiative.
Urged on by the Obama administration, the initiative aims to create uniform achievement standards in math and English across the states. The new standards would be based on the best state standards and aligned with the standards of top-performing countries.
“They’re going to be very good standards,” Holleman said. “We’re finally going to be in a situation where we can compare the performance of our (S.C.) students to students in other states and regions.”
So far, 35 states, including South Carolina, and Washington, D.C., have adopted the standards. Texas and Alaska have declined to participate.
Zais opposed South Carolina’s participation in Race to the Top and its July acceptance of common-core standards.
“Race to the Top does not fund one teacher or one brick,” Zais said, noting the money that South Carolina applied for would have gone to, among other things, new programs and administrative jobs. “Lack of programs and administrators is not a problem in South Carolina.”
Meanwhile, Zais thinks South Carolina should decide on its own which common-core standards to adopt and which to reject.
“We should adopt as much or as little as we want,” he said. “But when you sign onto (the national initiative ), there are strings attached. I’m looking for less control out of Washington and Columbia, not more.”
Watching the money
Zais thinks S.C. schools get enough money now but the funding formula for schools must be changed. Holleman thinks public education is underfunded.
Two ways to save money, Zais suggests, are privatizing some school operations, such as buses, cafeteria and maintenance, and encouraging school districts to use the same school construction plans.
“We’re the only state in the nation that runs its own bus fleet,” said Zais, who would like for either the state or local districts to competitively bid out bus services to a private provider.
“And colleges and universities privatized food services decades ago. Public schools could do the same and save a lot of money,” he said.
Zais also would like to develop several construction blueprints from which school districts could choose when constructing new schools.
“Think of the school districts that don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “That could really help them, if you could offer a scalable blueprint.”Holleman says neither idea will benefit schools.
He points to the state Department of Education’s recent pilot project, privatizing its bus maintenance shop in Mount Pleasant. “They’ve found it’s more expensive than to operate it themselves,” he said.
And Holleman thinks districts should design schools that best fit their needs. He doubts it is possible to create blueprints usable in all parts of the state because of the variance in land conditions and topography.
“It’s only common sense that you do not build the same school in the historical center of Charleston as in suburban Lexington or Augusta Road in Greenville or in rural Cheraw,” Holleman said. “Those are fundamentally different communities and you would expect them to build different schools.”Big picture?
Zais would like to change the state’s funding formula to reduce overhead, streamline programs and direct more dollars to the classroom.
Holleman said the funding formula should be reviewed but wants to ensure money makes it to both the classroom and supporting pieces, including guidance counselors and afterschool programs.
Zais supports tax credits for parents who send their students to private or parochial schools or who home school them. Holleman opposes the credits.
Zais is also a supporter of tax breaks for S.C. residents who contribute to scholarship-granting organizations that help pay for poor students get out of failing school districts and into better ones.
Ideally, Zais would like priority given to poor families living in failing school districts when the credits are handed out.
“If you’re a really poor kid and you’re stuck in a failing school, you don’t have school choice. It’s students who come from poor homes that have the real disadvantage, and I want to help them,” Zais said.
But Holleman thinks tax credits would siphon money away from public schools that are already cash strapped.
“The (Board of Economic Advisors) have said these (tax credits and scholarship breaks) would cost hundreds of millions of dollars,” Holleman said. “They would not only undercut public schools but also raise taxes for the rest of us.”
Tax credit plans are one of the most controversial education proposals in recent S.C. history. While Republican lawmakers have proposed various plans in the last several years, none have passed the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.