In refusing to pursue special federal funds to help the state's struggling public schools, State Superintendent of Education Mick Zais purports to be taking the high ground, and not kowtowing to Washington.
But passing up the chance to receive more than $144 million in school dollars to keep teachers from being furloughed during a tough budget year smacks of putting politics before education.
Dr. Zais is consistent in his opposition to this program and to federal Race to the Top funding.
Unfortunately, in each case, he's been consistently wrong.
While campaigning he said he would not pursue federal funds that would obligate the state to spend more of its own money as the U.S. Department of Education mandates. And he has said he's leery of school "bailouts" by the feds that only "kick the can down the road."
But Dr. Zais is not even attempting to pursue those funds on the state's terms. He has no plans to ask the state's congressional delegation to intervene on the teacher grant. And if that doesn't happen before Sept. 30, South Carolina will miss out on $144 million available to help prevent teacher layoffs due to funding cuts.
The problem? The state cut funding for higher education, and doing so made it ineligible. But Texas was able to get a waiver and receive its share of the Education Jobs Fund.
Dr. Zais' staff says the waiver was the responsibility of his predecessor, Jim Rex. Maybe so, but Jim Rex is no longer the state superintendent. The ball is now in Dr. Zais' court.
He ought to pursue a waiver so the state can pursue the federal grant.
South Carolinians pay federal taxes and expect their elected superintendent to look out for their interests as taxpayers, and as parents and students. Every other state in the nation is getting this money. So should South Carolina.
The EduJobs money could save more than 2,500 teaching jobs, or two-thirds of the positions lost over the course of the recession. If the $144 million did nothing more than save teacher jobs for one year, that would be one year to benefit public education in this state.
Dr. Zais also has passed on putting in an application for federal Race to the Top funding. South Carolina is one of nine states invited to compete for between $10 million and $50 million to pay for innovative education initiatives. Some of those focus on changes Dr. Zais has embraced, such as charter schools and performance-based pay for teachers.
The U.S. Department of Education does indeed expect the states to propose changes that are sustainable. And if the state fails to follow through, the department could demand the money back.
But that seems to be a phantom problem. If the S.C. Department of Education uses Race to the Top money to develop a teacher evaluation system that suits needs here, the state would logically put it in place and use it regardless of federal guidelines.
Dr. Zais wants South Carolina to come up with its own version of teacher evaluation, absent interference from the feds. We agree the state should determine its own system, and Race to the Top would allow for that. Simply put, it is a grant program that seeks to encourage state and local education innovations.
Money doesn't fix everything, but money is necessary. And a system that is forcing teachers to take furloughs and has the oldest school bus fleet in the country clearly needs money.
In each instance, the state can avoid the interference generally associated with the federal education bureaucracy. South Carolina is in no position to ignore the possibility of financial help. It's our money, too.