Thursday, January 19, 2012

Garrick bypasses Zais: A law whose time has come

This is precisely why we have legislators and a legislature in the first place -- to check executive power. Kudos to Rep. Mia Butley Garrick for her advocacy for public education.

From the current edition of Columbia's Free Times:

Superintendent Mick Zais’ controversial stance against accepting federal education grants will soon spark a battle in the legislative chambers.

Rep. Mia Butler Garrick, a Richland County Democrat, recently introduced legislation that would prohibit the state’s top education official from turning down any federal education grant that does not require matching funds.

“I just don’t understand why our superintendent of education would not want to accept all new available federal dollars for education,” she said.

It may have something to do with his ideological opposition to strengthening public education for the 700,000 children enrolled in South Carolina's traditional public schools. But I could be wrong; he may want to love public schools and simply not know how to love them.

Zais hasn’t shut the door on all federal grants, but he recently refused to apply for two federal programs that could have injected millions into the state’s education resources.

One of the programs, the Ed Jobs grant, would have given South Carolina access to $144 million. Another, the Race to the Top program, would have allowed the state to compete for a portion of $200 million in federal funds.

Zais contends such programs equate to federal mandates because of all of the requirements imposed on the state.

Federal highway dollars have the exact same "requirements": accept the federal highway money, and you have to spend the money on building and maintaining highways. Similarly, federal education dollars must be spent on providing educational services to children through public schools. What's the confusion?

But Garrick dismisses the “too many strings attached” rhetoric as a partisan argument often heard in national political circles.

She says South Carolina is not in a position to refuse such grants, and failure to use them amounts to “sabotage” of the education system.

We have a winner. Johnny Olsen, tell the lady what she's won.

Zais spokesman Jay Ragley said the superintendent’s position on such programs was well known when he was elected to office.

Well, to be fair, the good General was running for an office called "Superintendent of Education," and people -- dumb as we are -- tend to infer that if you run for "Superintendent of Education," you might support public schools. Crazy us for thinking that, sure.

So, to help those slower-thinking ones among us, the good General might have offered plainer statements such as, "I oppose the rights of your children to be educated in schools supported by our collective financial resources through tax revenue, and therefore I will do everything within my power to end this scheme of public education as rapidly as my little hands can work, once I take the reins of power in that tall building. Little poor children will have no more access to teachers and books, you can count on that. And if the federal government thinks it can stop me from bringing alllll of our educational progress in South Carolina to a screeching halt, it's got another think a-comin'!"

See, statements like that might've more accurately communicated to the 'lectorate what the General was thinking.

“Respectfully, General Zais opposes this legislation because it silences the voice of the voters,” Ragley said in an email response to the Free Times.

Here, we have a classic example of something called "spin." Political operatives with no background in public education are expert at "spin," and the General has hired a passel of them to speak for him. Here's some more of it:

“In 2010, the voters spoke loud and clear, electing Gen. Zais by a margin of victory in excess of 108,000 votes,” Ragley said. “Gen. Zais has repeatedly called for more, not less, local control of schools so they have the freedom to personalize and customize education for every student.”

It's called "spin" because, in this instance, the virtue of "local control" has been invoked as a fragile and beautiful flower, threatened by boogeyman of federal education dollars. See, by drawing your attention to the pretty flower, this operative has "spun" your attention away from the asininity of depriving our state's public schoolchildren of millions, and millions, and millions of federal education dollars.

Operatives are excellent at spin; they are also excellent at asininity. It's a fact in the Library of Congress.

Garrick said her bill may face something of an uphill battle in the Republican-dominated General Assembly.

Every good thing that has been decent and righteous and worth having or doing has faced an uphill battle in our fair state.

But she says she has bipartisan support.

“I know there are some Republicans who will support this bill,” she said. She expects deliberations on the bill will begin in the House Ways and Means Committee.

The displeasure over Zais’ back-turning on federal grants is widespread. About 50 education advocates and protesters gathered at the State House in December to protest his actions. The rally was organized by the state Legislative Black Caucus, whose members are all Democrats, and the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The South Carolina Association of School Administrators and the South Carolina School Boards Association have also denounced Zais’ position.

“We would hope that our state superintendent of education would welcome the opportunity to seek resources to help our state’s growing population of at-risk children,” said the two groups.

The S.C. Board of Education has been at odds with Zais over various issues, and at one point sought to require him to report on any federal or private grant exceeding $10 million for which South Carolina schools are eligible, and to justify his decision on whether to apply.

Zais argued the board has no authority over him and that he reports to voters, not the board.

Translation: This ball is my ball. If you do not have a ball, too bad for you. This ball is mine, and I say who gets to play with it, and I say what we will play. You may not play with my ball if I say you may not, so if you want to play with my ball, you must agree with me on all things. Plus, I don't have to talk to you if I don't want to. I control my ball. You do not. You are not my boss, so you cannot tell me what me what to do with my ball. It's mine. Mine, all mine.

The disagreements were later patched up after the board’s new chairman, Dennis Thompson, met with Zais and agreed to put the issue behind them and move ahead in a spirit of cooperation.

Translation: Our state's board of education agreed that it would not ever again suggest to Mick Zais what he should do with his ball, because the ball is his ball. Agreement that the superintendent has a ball and controls it, and the state board of education has no ball and controls nothing, represents cooperation.

Zais also came under fire from Democrats for failing to request more money for education in the coming year. Zais asked the Ways and Means panel not to make any cuts in the budget that provides the basic funding for classrooms, but he did not ask for an increase.

His first term as superintendent will continue to stir emotions as critics see his refusal to accept federal funds for education as a flagrant disregard for the needs of public education.

That's no joke. If we're not already searching out good candidates to replace Zais and his operatives, we have only ourselves to blame.

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