Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Did Spartanburg 5 students get their textbooks from Zais?

When was the last time you heard of the state's chief advocate for public education declaring that a school district had no need for textbooks in one subject, and that students in that district should study another subject instead? For example, students deprived of biology textbooks by their state Department of Education should take physical science instead, and be happy with it?

Technically speaking, we haven't heard Superintendent Mick Zais say those words, either; he sent his mouthpiece, former state Republican Party executive director Jay Ragley, to say it for him.

Jay Ragley, director of legislative and public affairs for the state Department of Education, said high school freshmen should still be taking physical science until the U.S. Department of Education approves a new biology assessment.

Honestly, I'm surprised that Zais hasn't provided the biology textbooks to Spartanburg 5 to spite the federal Department of Education, using the old argument that any regulation or assessment that comes from Washington is another case of unwanted government intrustion. The lesson to be learned here is that it's a fool who looks for logic in the atoms of an ideologue's mind.

Sadly, the students of Spartanburg 5 expected more from their state's superintendent, and the Spartanburg Herald-Journal saw good reason for their disappointment in him. In its report, the Herald-Journal found that district administrators are having to fund the textbooks themselves while Zais continues to prove himself incapable of his position.

About 200 Byrnes High School students might not have biology textbooks when they return to school in less than two weeks.

Spartanburg District 5 officials say they'll dip into their own pockets to get students books for what they say will be a required course after learning the books will not be provided by the S.C. Department of Education, but they might not be there in time for the first day. State officials said the course is not required, so the requested biology textbooks will not be issued.

District 5 asked for about 200 biology books to accommodate an increase in the number of students signed up for freshman- and sophomore-level courses. Superintendent Scott Turner said many freshmen will take applied biology 1 in the coming year — the first in a two-course study of biology elements to be tested on a federally mandated end-of-course exam during their second year of high school. Students on a faster track can elect to take just one biology course before taking the end-of-course exam, Turner explained, but offering the subject in two parts helps more students succeed.

"Our district's very forward thinking," said Pat Monteith, principal of the Byrnes Freshman Academy. "Everything we do is to help our kids be successful. This was quite a blow for us. We're trying to do something proactive for our students and our hands are tied."

End-of-course tests are required in science, as well as algebra 1, English 1 and U.S. history. Exams count toward 20 percent of students' grades.

Turner said he only recently learned the books weren't coming.

"It's not acceptable," he said. "We want to improve education in South Carolina, but you don't want to give us the materials to work with?"

Is it possible that Zais, whose quest for tuition tax credits and vouchers to allow parents to use public tax dollars for private schools is well documented, wants the students of Spartanburg 5 to accept a second-rate education, so that parents will rise up and demand public subsidies for private schools? It's not beyond the realm of possibility. Nothing Zais has done yet indicates genuine support or advocacy for South Carolina's public schools.

In fact, let's repeat that: Nothing Zais has done yet indicates genuine support or advocacy for South Carolina's public schools.

IF there is a single instance that disproves this assertion, I'd love for readers to submit evidence of it. Until and unless such evidence is presented, I'll happily proceed under this assumption.

Ragley, Zais's own personal song-and-dance man, played out a tune to the Herald-Journal that would put Billy Flynn to shame: Give 'em the old razzle-dazzle, and they'll never catch wise:

Ragley said the state Department of Education will not pay for books that aren't yet needed, and the decision to offer applied biology to freshmen was a district choice, not a state or federal mandate.

"In this specific case, this is not about biology textbooks in general," Ragley said. "This is about the district making a decision without the state Department of Education and electing to offer applied biology 1 in the ninth-grade year instead of physical science."

Ragley said both physical science and biology credits will count as the required science course for graduation until further action is taken at the federal level.

Your kid wants to take biology but doesn't have a book? Fugeddabouddit. Give your kid a physical science credit and tell 'im to go sit down. Who needs biology now but doctors? And we have plenty of doctors coming from other countries to meet our needs without spending unnecessary money on biology textbooks. Besides, physical science is good for you: Learn how gears work and you can fix your own machine in the factory without costing your company downtime and repairs.

Ragley said District 5 turned down an offer from the state department to provide a classroom set of applied biology textbooks for students to use at school, in addition to supplemental online information.

"These students will have the ability to master the material," Ragley said. "It just may not be in the form of their own individualized textbook."

Message: Tell your kids to share books. Absorb what you read the first time, and you won't need a book of your own to take home and re-read. Kids from the Upstate ought to understand sharing well enough; mill workers' kids shared beds and chalk slates and shifts at the spindles. Sharing will be just fine for them.

Meanwhile, can it be true that a district superintendent turned down an offer of textbooks, as Ragley charges?

Turner said he never received the offer and wouldn't have turned down free books.

So here's one superintendent who isn't afraid to tell the media that either Ragley lied about the offer, or the staff that Zais has put in place lacks the competence to deliver an official message.

Finally, the Herald-Journal reports, the clock is ticking. And public schools have a mission.

Monteith and Byrnes High School Principal Jeff Rogers said they hope the issue is resolved before students arrive Aug. 15.

"We hope we can have (textbooks) here by the time school starts, but regardless, we're going to have books," Rogers said. "The textbook is not the only source teachers use, but it's the primary source. Kids need textbooks to study at home."

Monteith likened individual student textbooks to a welder's blowtorch — a necessary tool of the trade. Students need their own books, she said, to take home to study and do homework.

"Our district's going to do what's right for the kids," Monteith said. "Science is such a critical need for our kids for the future. Math and science applies to their everyday lives. If the state's not giving us these resources, how are they going to compete?"

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