Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Zais may forfeit $144 million in jobs funding

Has anyone from Governor Nikki Haley's office been in communication with Superintendent Mick Zais recently? I ask because Haley ran on a platform of "Less Talk, More Jobs," and Zais seems to be pushing "Fewer Jobs, More Talk."

The Greenville News explains:

Leaders of two of the state's largest public education associations lashed out at state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais on Monday for turning down the chance to win a grant of up to $50 million in federal Race to the Top money, even as the state's efforts have languished in attempting to claim its share of nearly $144 million in federal money to save teaching jobs.

All 49 other states received their portion of the $10 billion teaching jobs grant.

Zais, a former brigadier general now in his sixth month as leader of the state's K-12 education agency, decided against applying for the Race to the Top money, one of President Obama's key education initiatives, saying he opposes “federal intrusion” as a means of improving the quality of schools.

Leaders of the South Carolina School Boards Association and the South Carolina Association of School Administrators went on the offensive Monday, joining the state Board of Education in calling for Zais to reconsider his decision not to compete in Race to the Top.

“We are willing to support the state superintendent and the leadership to improve education,” said Molly Spearman, executive director of the School Boards Association. “But we really feel that some very bad decisions are being made without input from the folks who are on the ground working in these districts.”

J.W. Ragley, a spokesman for Zais, said the Republican state superintendent is living up to his campaign promise in not seeking the grants, which he said come with strings attached.

“Dr. Zais took a clear position as a candidate for public office. He did not support Washington's Race to the Top program because it provided one-time money for recurring expenses, which is the definition of an unfunded mandate,” Ragley said. “His position has not changed since assuming office in January.

“What message is the education establishment sending to students by demanding Dr. Zais change his position regarding Race to the Top? It's acceptable to break your word?”

To put a fine point on it, Mr. Ragley, yes. It is a sign of intelligence to evaluate conditions and make decisions based on new conditions or new information, even if those decisions oppose an earlier-held viewpoint.

And it is certainly a sign of foolishness, if not wanton malice or stupidity, to hold to a viewpoint despite new information or changing conditions merely because you once held the viewpoint. Presumably, you once ate baby food from jars because that's what you liked. Presumably, you once wore diapers because it was the best of several unattractive options. Do you still eat baby food from jars and wear diapers? If not, why not? Is it because, perhaps, conditions changed and you made different decisions based on new information? If that is the case, then surely you're capable of learning, growing, and even changing your position.

This is one more example that elections have consequences, and that elevating unqualified candidates with no previous electoral experience to high office is the sort of criminally tragic act that keeps South Carolina trapped in a time-warped cage of its own making. Hiring inexperienced political lackeys to deliver the daily pap is another.

The separate issue of the missed opportunity for $144 million for teaching jobs goes back to the previous administration.

South Carolina didn't qualify for its share of the money because the law says states must not have reduced their proportionate level of funding for both K-12 and higher education over the two years when they were receiving stabilization funds from the federal government.

That ensures states don't simply slash state spending when they see federal money coming and instead use the federal money to accomplish the grant's purpose of saving jobs.

Although South Carolina's budget was reduced from $6 billion in 2009-10 to $5.8 billion this year, the percentage of the budget that was spent on K-12 schools went up, from 39.7 percent to 43.3 percent. But the percentage spent on higher education fell, from 9.2 percent to 7.3 percent, according to figures from the state Education Department.

In the previous round of stabilization money, the formula allowed states to calculate their spending percentages on the total of K-12 and higher education — which would qualify South Carolina for this grant. The total percentage of the budget spent on education rose from 49.8 percent to 50.7 percent over those two years.

When the issue arose last August, Zais' predecessor, Democrat Jim Rex, had tried to get Congress to tweak the law so the state didn't lose out on the money, which would pay for an estimated 2,600 teaching jobs. But that hadn't been done by the time Rex lost his re-election bid to Zais in November.

If the money isn't sent to South Carolina by Sept. 30, it will go back to the federal treasury.The two education associations are urging the state congressional delegation to seek an amendment or a special “bypass” law, similar to what was done in Texas, to get the money.

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