Thursday, January 12, 2012

The State details Zais's parsimony, lack of advocacy

Situations like these make me wish there were cameras in committee rooms, so we could all watch the outright foolishness that occurs in them.

In today's The State, reporter Seanna Adcox adds more details to what we knew about Superintendent Mick Zais's lack of commitment to advocating for South Carolina's public schools and the children they serve.

Zais asked a Ways and Means panel not to cut a key funding stream for classrooms but did not ask for an increase. The so-called base student cost primarily pays teacher salaries. The current per-student allocation is $1,880 because of recession budget cuts, though a state funding formula calls for it to be $2,790 this year.

Noting the economy remains uncertain, Zais told the budget-writing panel his budget request for 2012-13 is largely unchanged from the current budget, with a few exceptions. That included $14.5 million to cover student increases, to prevent a drop in base student cost.

"These dollars go to the classroom, and that's where our priorities should be," Zais said.

With a puzzled expression, Rep. Michael Anthony, D-Union, asked, "Why, then, as state superintendent of our public schools, are you not asking for an increase to catch up?"

Mike Anthony's a straight shooter and a lifelong educator -- one of the precious few serving in the legislature -- and I'm sure he knows hundreds or thousands of educators whose success depends upon adequate funding.

House Minority Leader Harry Ott grilled Zais, repeatedly asking whether he's telling teachers they should go a fourth year without a raise.

The Republican superintendent said he's not sure the money is available, and legislators can provide more than he is requesting.

Budget advisors expect an additional $913.4 million in one-time and recurring revenue because of surplus from the fiscal year that closed June 30, along with more money coming in this fiscal year than legislators budgeted, plus continued growth. But required increases - including property tax relief, health care and reserve funds - gobble up most of that money.

It would cost $553 million to restore the base student cost to $2,790, according to the state budget office.

Ott said the Republican-controlled Legislature is highly unlikely to put any more into public education than Zais seeks.

"Your job is to fight for what you think is important for education. You have to take a position," said Ott, D-St. Matthews. "You get to write your budget for whatever you want. You are the man in charge of the request. We find the money."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but damn right.

Our Constitution authorizes one person -- only one, in the whole vast system of South Carolina's government -- to advocate on behalf of public schools and our children, and Zais won that position. Knowing he's tightfisted and opposes public education, maybe he shouldn't have run for the office. But he did, and he won, and whether or not he likes it, it's his job to tell the legislature how much it's going to cost to bring our public schools up to speed, and to walk the halls in Columbia every day in search of those funds. To do less is to abrogate his responsibility.

One would think that a man who rose to the rank of general in the United States military would understand responsibility and would honor it.

Teachers are usually paid based on their years in the classroom and level of degree. But legislators have suspended the step increases for the last several years. Zais said the Legislature could choose to return to the minimum salary schedule.

"How they make it up is up to them," Zais said.

At best, this is disingenuous of Zais. Our legislative majority isn't going to drop so much as a pecan without someone shaking their tree. As superintendent, you advocate for what you want, and you point out every instance that you don't get it from lawmakers.

For reference, Zais might do well to review the superintendency of Inez Tenenbaum, a superintendent who understood the job. Of course, Inez had been an educator before becoming an administrator. Clearly, it made a difference.

Zais' largest request for additional money - $36 million - would buy enough new school buses to comply with the state's 15-year replacement cycle, so the agency can get buses from the mid-'80s off the road. All but five of the state's 201 buses that date from 1984 through 1987 are for students with disabilities.

He also sought an additional $5 million to keep buses fueled and running. With two-thirds of the agency's fleet more than 15 years old, the buses are expensive to maintain and not fuel-efficient, Zais said.

Last year, the Legislature designated up to $12 million in unclaimed lottery money toward replacing them - overriding Gov. Nikki Haley's veto - but the money depends on how many prizes go unclaimed. So far, the agency has received just $2.2 million, which will buy buses for the School for the Deaf and the Blind in Spartanburg, said Zais spokesman Jay Ragley.

The last time legislators designated money for school buses was 2007, when they approved replacing the statewide fleet every 15 years. That would require buying nearly 380 yearly. But that law has been ignored amid the economic downturn.

The economic downturn has nothing to do with ignoring the school bus law; our legislators ignore laws when the wind blows and when it's still, when it rains and when it shines, when it's day and when it's night. Ignoring a law is taken as a prerogative of holding power.

Seanna, here's a great question whose answer ought to be included as context every time the Educating Finance Act and its base student cost as mentioned: How many years -- and specifically, which ones -- has the EFA's base student cost been fully funded since the law was enacted in 1977? I'm confident that someone in the Rutledge Building could tell you, if Zais would allow his staff to talk to the media. Or, you could file a FOIA request to get the data.

Zais recommends closing an incentive program for teachers earning national certification, which provides an annual bonus of either $5,000 or $7,500 - depending on when they applied - for the 10-year life of the certificate. Nothing would change for teachers already in the program.

Zais said studies indicate the expensive program does not improve student learning, but rather that already-excellent teachers pursue the additional certification.

Indeed, we want to leave behind absolutely no incentive for children to aspire to become teachers, and college students to consider education as a viable and stable career choice, and for education professionals to be compensated for their pursuit of additional credentials and professional development. The quicker we can remove all incentive, the quicker they'll leave the profession and we can get down to the business of closing public schools and selling their assets to private companies.

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