A Polarizing Pick for Education Department’s No. 2 Slot

Mick Zais shook things up as S.C. chief
By Alyson Klein — November 01, 2017 6 min read
A retired U.S. Army brigadier general and former South Carolina schools superintendent, Mick Zais is the nominee to be U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ right-hand man at the Education Department. As South Carolina’s top schools officer, he championed school choice and rebuffed what he saw as a heavy federal footprint in K-12.

They’re both believers in school choice and a smaller footprint for the federal government in K-12. They both like the idea of a slimmer bureaucracy.

And they’re both politically polarizing.

Mick Zais, the nominee to fill the No. 2 spot at the U.S. Department of Education, has some big things in common with his would-be boss, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

As state chief in South Carolina from 2011 to 2015, Zais cut about 10 percent of the staff at the state department of education. He championed a tax-credit scholarship for students in special education, charter school legislation, and an expansion of virtual schooling. He fought against the Common Core State Standards. And he was reluctant to take federal Race to the Top money and funding to preserve education jobs, even after a protracted recession.

Some South Carolina school choice proponents say Zais brought a fresh perspective to the state’s schools. But he had a strained relationship with many educators and their advocates. They describe him as aloof, ideological, and largely ignorant of the day-to-day operations of school districts.

“I had a 40-year career in South Carolina, and I never worked under or with a more inefficient superintendent in my career than Mick Zais,” said Tom Chapman, who was superintendent of South Carolina’s Anderson County schools during Zais’ tenure. “He was noncommunicative. He isolated himself at the state department. He would not communicate with superintendents at all.”

But Ellen Weaver, the president of the Palmetto Promise Institute, a South Carolina-based think tank, described Zais—who was a brigadier general in the U.S. Army and college president before becoming state education chief—as a breath of fresh air.

“As a retired general, Dr. Zais takes a no-nonsense, action-oriented approach to his work,” Weaver said. With South Carolina’s education system ranking low nationally, “I think many folks outside of the system appreciated his sense of urgency on behalf of students.”

Rejecting Federal Funds

Zais, a Republican, was elected in 2010 as the conservative tea party movement rose to national prominence. He made headlines in 2011 when he decided not to go after a special round of Race to the Top funding, a competitive-grant program that rewarded states for embracing the Obama administration’s K-12 priorities, including the common core. The Education Department was “offering pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington,” Zais said in a statement at the time.

And in 2011, Zais opted not to pursue $140 million in federal funding to save the equivalent of 2,600 teachers’ jobs in the wake of the national recession. Zais argued that the state wasn’t eligible for the funding because it couldn’t meet maintenance of effort requirements that applied to overall education spending.

But Beth Phibbs, the executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, said the state’s congressional delegation was ready and willing to craft special legislation that would have allowed the state to get the money.

Unlike Race to the Top, the funding for teacher jobs was “no-strings-attached money,” she said. Refusal to take the money “really caused a lot of hard feelings,” she said.

Scott English, who served as Zais’ chief operating officer but is no longer with the department, stands by the decision. The state, he said, was already on the hook for a significant federal penalty for failing to meet special education spending requirements. South Carolina needed to pick its battles with Washington.

“The juice just wasn’t worth the squeeze,” English said.

Zais also opposed the common-core standards, which were embraced by President Barack Obama and his Education Department. South Carolina ultimately ditched the common core and rewrote its standards. He also decided to pull out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two groups using federal funding to create tests aligned to the common core.

State Agency Cuts

Critics say the cuts Zais made to the 950-person state education department staff hurt communication between district superintendents and the state.

“The department of education just became an institution that just passed along regulations and sent out memos, but there was no support,” said Debbie Elmore, the director of government relations and communications for the South Carolina School Boards Association.

English, though, said that when Zais came in, employees at the state’s department of education were subject to furloughs. Some had their time cut by dozens of days per year. Zais cut back on some department heads, but left in place the people who were closest to schools and districts, English said.

“We overhauled the organizational structure to make it much more efficient,” said English.

And Zais took steps to ease the regulatory burden on schools, with input from district leaders, English added. For instance, he waived regulations that prohibited elementary school reading coaches from working in high schools with students who were in advanced grades but still reading on an elementary level. He also helped high schools create “majors” to help students better match their coursework to their future career, English said.

School Choice Proponent

Zais championed a 2012 law that allowed higher education institutions to authorize charter schools, permitted single-gender charters, and allowed charter students to join extracurricular activities at their local school. And he pushed to allow districts to designate one school each as an “innovation school” given some governing flexibility. He was also a supporter of virtual schools, a model that DeVos has praised, too. Zais led an expansion of a statewide virtual program run by the South Carolina Department of Education.

Neil Mellen, an architect of a tax-credit scholarship program in South Carolina for students in special education, said Zais was more interested in helping students find the educational environment best suited to their individual needs than school choice for its own sake. That’s something DeVos has also said about her own policies.

“He spent an enormous amount of time at individual schools,” Mellen said. “He met with business leaders and community members and was able to use the bully pulpit of the statewide superintendent’s office to really start to talk about things like what’s the best use of resources.”

But others said Zais lavished attention on school choice, while paying little notice to public schools in the state.

“He was very, very difficult to work with,” said Kathy Maness, the executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association. “Teacher morale in South Carolina was very low when he was superintendent.”

And Elmore, the South Carolina school boards advocate, found him to be ideological, rather than pragmatic. “He seemed to bring more politics to the office than we’ve had in the past,” she said.

English dismissed those claims, noting that Zais’ own children attended public schools in the state. He said advocates accused him ofbeing against public schools because they didn’t like being “second guessed.”

Zais only served for one term and endorsed his deputy, Meka Childs, to succeed him as state superintendent. Childs garnered only 6.7 percent of the vote in the multicandidate GOP primary, not even making it into a runoff. Ultimately, Molly Spearman, formerly the head of the South Carolina Administrators Association, won the post.

So what will Zais be like at the Education Department, should he win Senate confirmation?

“He did not like [professional] associations. He hired some people that did not have a background in education. He took pride in talking about how many jobs he was cutting at the state department,” said Maness.

But Weaver, of the Palmetto Promise Institute, is excited to see him in the role. “Dr. Zais’ core philosophy of getting decisionmaking out of [Washington, D.C.] and empowering every parent with high-quality options make him a perfect fit for this administration’s priorities,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as A Polarizing Pick for Education Department’s No. 2 Slot


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