Thursday, June 30, 2011

Educators: Zais 'cutting off our nose to spite our face'

Having failed to convince Superintendent Mick Zais and Governor Nikki Haley of the most appropriate course of action, leaders of the state's school boards association and school administrators association are taking their argument to South Carolina's opinion leaders and citizens.

Paul Krohne and Molly Spearman, executive directors of the School Boards Association (SCSBA) and Association of School Administrators (SCASA), respectively, have published a joint opinion-editorial in at least two newspapers today, The State and the Myrtle Beach Sun-News, to argue that Zais should try, at least, to compete for up to $50 million in federal "Race to the Top" funds.

"Race to the Top" is an Obama administration initiative, administered by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to target federal resources to states that agree to various education reforms. The recipe of reforms favored by the Obama administration would suggest that South Carolina is an ideal candidate for the funding, if only the superintendent would apply for it. But Zais isn't interested.

The effective result is that federal taxes being paid by South Carolinians will be used by states that do apply for, and win, the funding.

Krohne and Spearman write,

South Carolinians, in the tradition of the late Senator Strom Thurmond, have always recognized the folly in sending our own tax dollars to the federal government only to have them forwarded to other states. The baffling tendencies of today's state leaders to stand rigidly on their ideology, even when federal money can be used for the good of our people, is cutting off our nose to spite our face.

We understood the illogic of this approach two years ago when Gov. Mark Sanford protested the federal stimulus by attempting to leave South Carolina's share on the table, even though our taxpayers would pay the cost.

Unfortunately, our current leaders are following exactly in his footsteps.

I think Ralph Waldo Emerson captured this pattern best when he wrote, in "Self-Reliance," "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

The announcement by State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais that he will not pursue up to $50 million in funding under the federal Race to the Top program, quickly noted and celebrated in the eight other states invited to apply, will hamper educational progress here and fuel it elsewhere, for no good reason.

His excuse - that federal money means federal dictates - has little relevance in this case. Unlike many federal initiatives, Race to the Top was designed specifically to encourage state-level ingenuity, and is remarkably hands-off and state-driven.

Our state's application in fact reflects our state's own longstanding needs, priorities identified and wished for long before federal funding made them a possibility. Several of the innovations we have proposed are exactly the kinds of reforms Zais supports, including improving the quality and transparency of education data, encouraging our best teachers to work in schools that need them most, and creating a system of teacher pay that is based less on credentials and more on performance. Many of our priorities are infrastructure needs suitable for one-time funding, not new bureaucracies that impose ongoing costs.

Message: Some people just can't take 'yes' for an answer. To collaborate with educators -- which certainly would be interpreted by Zais's base as buckling to the status quo -- would only encourage educators to expect future collaboration. This defies the command-and-control manner to which Zais is accustomed. (Word from Newberry seems to support this view...)

And it gets worse. If there is little sense in opposing the Race to the Top initiative, there is none at all in rejecting direct assistance to schools to retain teaching positions. South Carolina has the distinct title of being the only state in the nation to leave on the table millions of dollars designed specifically to preserve teaching jobs in the leanest economy any of us can recall, preventing the devastating layoffs and furlough days nearly every district has experienced in recent years.

The $144 million allocated under federal "Edujobs" legislation is enough to save more than 2,500 teaching jobs, or two thirds of the positions lost over the course of the recession. Thanks to last year's massive cuts in higher education spending, South Carolina can't access that badly needed funding without a congressional waiver, sought by our delegation last year at Superintendent Jim Rex's request. Zais has abandoned any such effort, which his staff has described as "a dead issue."

Every point made by Krohne and Spearman here is valid because they are rooted in logic and reason. But we do not function in a system governed by logic and reason; Haley, Zais and their sycophants operate in a parallel, Bizarro universe where the goal is to reduce the number of teachers teaching in public school classrooms, not to increase them; to raise the teacher-student ratio, not to lower it; to weaken the public education system they swore to support, not to strengthen it.

Unfortunately, South Carolina is not our world -- it's theirs. We only live in it.

Of course, until they change the Constitution to exclude us, we get to vote in it.

It's clear that Krohne and Spearman understand this. Their message isn't to the saved but to the uncommitted:

And yet, like Gov. Sanford before him, Zais apparently leaves significant wiggle room in his ideology to support the projects he favors. He has been quick to applaud the millions of dollars in federal funding awarded to South Carolina to establish charter schools, with no talk of bureaucracy, Washington footprints, or "pieces of silver" exchanged for federal "strings."

At best, there is an alarming confusion in the priorities of an administration that won't take federal assistance to sustain the teachers and schools we already have, but is happy to accept it to support a political agenda.

It's an undisputed fact that few states have educational needs as pressing as South Carolina's. Poverty rates, high at the beginning of the recession, are rising every year, creating new challenges for schools even as state funding has declined. We are losing teachers, increasing class sizes, and cutting academic programs, at a time when we urgently need to improve achievement.

Our state and national leaders need to recognize that South Carolina's resources are far too limited and our needs far too great to help fund schools in other places at the expense of our own. There is no acceptable reason not to give our schools and students our strongest support.

Indeed. Educators, unite.

No comments:

Post a Comment