Outgoing state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex says South Carolina lost out on tens of millions of federal dollars targeted to reform schools because his successor and incoming governor Nikki Haley would not get on board.
Before applying for $175 million in round two of Race to the Top, the Obama administration's $4.35 billion school reform effort, Rex said he asked candidates running for state office to write letters supporting the application.
Several did, including U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster. But Rex said Haley and incoming education chief Mick Zais refused.
"If you're going to place a billion-dollar bet on a handful of states to lead the nation in a different direction in terms of education reform, would you pick a state whose leaders past, present and future are saying they don't want to use federal money?" Rex said. "I think that's what made the difference between us being a finalist twice and never being a recipient."
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Rex offered his assessment on the Race to the Top outcome during a wide-ranging interview with The Herald.
Haley's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A spokesman for Zais called Rex's charge unfair.
"I take issue with Dr. Rex blaming it on us," said Jay Ragley, Zais' campaign manager.
"The reality is it's his application. ... He asked us to sign it a day before that application was due, but we had no input ... It's unfair to criticize us for that. You don't put your name on something willy-nilly."
Plus, Ragley said, support from political candidates was not part of the competition's criteria, a point Rex concedes. Still, even if he was given time to offer input, it's unlikely that Zais would have supported the state's bid.
The former president of Newberry College and retired Army brigadier general has repeatedly opposed accepting federal school money that "comes with strings attached."
It's a one-time investment in programs the federal government expects states to maintain, said Ragley, adding, "We'd be making a financial commitment that we can't keep."
Race to the Top is the most expensive federal attempt to reform America's public schools in history.
To compete in the two rounds held so far, states had to submit plans to raise standards, use student achievement data to measure teacher effectiveness and tackle troubled and failing schools.
States also had to show they are paving the way for more high-caliber charter schools to open.
Forty-one states applied in round one, 35 in round two.
S.C. education officials were confident of success.
"When we saw the guidelines come out, it looked just like us," Rex said during round one.
After finishing sixth in round one, in which there were just two winners - Tennessee and Delaware - many thought the Palmetto State was a sure bet for round two.
When 10 winners - including neighbors North Carolina and Georgia - were announced in August, South Carolina wasn't among them. Of 18 finalists, the state finished 14th.
"When people looked at our proposal and the criteria in both rounds of Race to the Top, they said South Carolina was a shoe in," Rex said. "But we missed it. We didn't miss it by much, but we missed it."
Justin Snider, a contributing editor to The Hechinger Report, a non-profit education journalism publication, called the decision a mystery.
In its application, South Carolina pitched an effort titled INSPIRED - Innovation, Next generation learners, Standards and assessments, Personalized instruction, Input and choice, Redesigned schools, Effective teachers and leaders, Data systems.
It proposed using Race to the Top funding to speed up existing efforts; to toughen teacher evaluations by linking them to student achievement; to upgrade teacher recruitment and retention, especially in rural areas and struggling schools; and to focus more intensive help on low-achieving students in early grades.
Rex said he got the idea of seeking political candidates' support from Delaware, which did so in its successful bid.
Haley's and Zais' respective Democratic opponents Vincent Sheheen and Frank Holleman sent letters of support, according to the S.C. Department of Education.
South Carolina received a score of 431 - 10 points behind North Carolina - out of a possible 500 from a panel of five education experts.
It is unclear whether lack of support from Haley and Zais affected Race to the Top judges' final decisions.
Comments on one judge's score sheet from round one suggest that statewide buy-in was a factor.
"Strong leadership from state leaders is absolutely critical, and this appears to be a 'project' run solely by the Department of Education," the unnamed reviewer wrote.
Rex said he doesn't know how lack of support from potential state leaders couldn't have affected the score.
He doesn't blame the judges if it did.
"When you look at the fact that we have a legislature that's seriously looking at cutting 10 days out of the school year, I don't know," he said. "What if we were sitting here with that Race to the Top money and maybe turning down $143 million that would save teaching jobs?
"If that was the reason, maybe they were correct. Maybe this state, regardless of the good things we've done, just doesn't have the political will or the leadership to bring about the reforms that the nation is looking for."
Want to learn more?
To see South Carolina's and other states' Race to the Top applications and to read judges score sheets, go to: www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop