Plumb Line

Plumb: A big thank you, Gen. Zais

December 29, 2013 

I consider it a fortuitous coincidence that my favorite film adaptation of “The Christmas Carol,” one starring Albert Finney as Scrooge, aired during Christmas week, virtually simultaneously with news that State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais won’t run for re-election.

I bet I wasn’t the only one humming the refrain from the musical’s most memorable song: “Thank you very much! Thank you very much! That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me…”

At this point, it’s not known whether Zais’ successor will be the last person elected to the job. There’s a move afoot to change the education superintendent’s job from an elective post to an appointed one, making it part of the governor’s cabinet.

The idea has bipartisan support. No matter what one thinks of Gov. Nikki Haley, the argument for appointing the superintendent of education is sound. Compared to other states, South Carolina splinters executive-branch authority among so many elected offices that efficiency and accountability are hindered.

Besides, it’s unlikely any governor could appoint someone less qualified or more ill-suited to be superintendent of education.

Zais’ background, first as a general in the Army, then – briefly – as president of Newberry College, failed to prepare him for the task. Anyone who has spent much time in the presence of generals or college presidents understands why the authoritarian, my-way-or-the-highway management style that allows them to succeed in an authoritarian environment may not transfer well to public office.

Zais has been particularly abrasive. Within weeks of taking office, he alienated school leaders, either refusing to meet or agreeing to do so only if he didn’t have to answer questions.

Being rude or unapproachable was bad enough, but Zais inflicted genuine harm to the state’s public education system.

Early in his tenure, he declined to apply for a “Race to the Top” grant, which could have netted South Carolina schools up to $50 million. “Schools need less, not more, federal intrusion to increase student achievement,” he declared at the time.

He later topped that lunatic move by turning down $149 million allotted specifically for South Carolina under the federal “Edu Jobs” program. It wasn’t enough for him to reject money that could have been used to keep 3,000 teachers in the classroom, but he also dressed-down the deputy director of the U.S. Department of Education for reminding him of the application deadline.

Meanwhile, other states happily accepted federal money, paid in part by South Carolina taxpayers.

Gen. Zais declared war on teachers, arguing that it was wrong to tie salaries to longevity or advanced degrees. He never made clear how school districts were expected to attract talented young professionals by removing assurances their hard work would be rewarded over time or by eliminating incentives to pursue advanced degrees.

Instead he became an advocate for the popular but simplistic notion that teachers’ salaries be tied to student achievement, as measured by standardized tests. At first blush that sounds good, but it falls apart when one understands that teacher competency is just one factor affecting student achievement – and not necessarily the most critical.

Similarly, he has championed such alternative education efforts as charter schools and tax support of private schools on grounds that “school choice” is the antidote for “failing schools.” He maintains such positions despite lack of evidence that students in charter schools perform better or that South Carolina’s private schools either are prepared to accept an onslaught of refugees from low-performing schools or that they have any interest in serving that clientele.

Fortunately, the State Board of Education rejected another of Zais’ misbegotten ideas: Giving local school districts more “flexibility” by abolishing minimum standards for class sizes or the number of assistant principals or guidance counselors required.

Most recently, Gen. Know-It-All has criticized schools for emphasizing college prep courses when 75 percent will never earn a four-year degree. Because of this misplaced emphasis on hard subjects, children miss out on high-paying jobs in manufacturing and heating and air conditioning repair, etc., he says.

Obviously, Zais has never spoken to corporations like Boeing that are begging the state to raise – not lower – graduation requirements.

In short, it’s time for Zais to decamp.

All together now, “Thank you very much!”

Email former Herald Editor Terry Plumb at terry.plumb@gmail.com

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