Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Zais Plan to improve public schools: Support vouchers & charters instead

South Carolina's newest superintendent of education laid out his plan to improve public schools to members of the Senate Finance Committee this week, and it strangely included none of the strategies proven to improve public schools.

Zais is well-educated himself, with training at West Point and advanced degrees earned in the Pacific Northwest, and brings plenty of experience as an administrator at one of the South Carolina's prettiest private colleges, but his career includes no experience in South Carolina's public school classrooms. Of course, experience in the state's public schools is not a criteria for service as state superintendent. But Zais is the seventeenth person to hold the office since it was created in the mid-1800s -- the tenth superintendent began his term in 1922! -- and the first sixteen or so interpreted the charge of their office to mean they were the chief advocate and champion for the state's public schools, such as they were, as the public schools were the only state institution designed and ascribed to serve the needs of all South Carolina's children.

But Zais has reinterpreted that charge in such a way that may leave the schools without their advocate and champion for a few years. According to various media accounts, the superintendent suggested to senators that teachers with "personality," not experience or depth of study in their field, made the most effective instructors; therefore teachers should be paid based on their performance.

He said teacher pay should be determined more by performance than by credentials or seniority. And he said the strongest indicator of how well a teacher would do in a classroom is determined by personality, rather than experience or training.

That seemed to be the sum and substance of his plan to improve traditional public schools, but he brought a raft of suggestions to help children avoid attending those public schools:

Zais also called for more educational alternatives for parents and children, including charter schools, virtual schools, single gender schools and magnet schools.

And rather than invest the time and attention to bring disadvantaged schools up to standard, their state leader suggested tax breaks for poor parents whose children attend those schools:

Zais said dollars should follow the child in the public school system, rather than being allocated to the district. He said he supports tax breaks for low income parents of children who are in failing schools or school districts.

Given the choice between championing high expectations and standards or cutting the school year, and on the question of school consolidation, Zais played the local-control card:

Asked about how school districts should make up lost snow days, he said that should be a local decision. And he said he would not support cutting back on the number of mandated school days as a way to save money.

Dr. Zais also said the decision about whether to consolidate school districts should be a local decision, although he does support consolidating so called back office administrative functions between districts.

But the superintendent saved his best advice for the media at a photo opportunity held later the same day: Since charter schools that weren't chartered by local school districts are having difficulty funding their budgets, and since the state legislature (which created a statewide charter school district to let these schools exist without local approval) doesn't want to pay for them, Zais pledged his support for a proposal to take local district funding away from local districts to help pay for these detached charter schools.

Later in the day, Zais attended a news conference to support a bill that would require school districts to spend money on charter school students who live within the district’s boundaries. Charter schools are not governed by local school districts. Opponents of the measure have said that it’s wrong to take local dollars to support state sponsored schools.

What do YOU make of this?

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