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Trump Taps Common-Core Foe Mick Zais for No. 2 Post at Ed. Dept.

By Alyson Klein — October 03, 2017 3 min read
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President Donald Trump has tapped Mitchell “Mick” Zais, the former South Carolina chief state school officer and a vehement opponent of the Common Core State Standards, as deputy secretary, the number two position at the U.S. Department of Education.

Trump ran on getting rid of the common core—something he doesn’t have the power to do. But it’s hard to imagine Zais cheerleading the common core from his new post. As state chief in he tried to persuade South Carolina to dump the common core. And the state ultimately did shift to new standards, although it’s debatable how different they are from the common core. In 2014, Zais decided to pull South Carolina out of the Smarter Balanced testing consortia, one of two federally funded groups of states creating exams that align with the standards, even though the state board had just voted to remain in the consortium.

Zais was also a big-time supporter of school choice when he worked in the Palmetto State. He championed the expansion of charter schools and other school-choice programs, including a tax-credit scholarship program for special-needs students.

And Zais will fit right into U.S. Secreary of Education Betsy DeVos’ push for more local control. He elected not to compete in a special round of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program that would have rewarded states, including South Carolina, that garnered high scores in earlier rounds but ultimately didn’t get funding.

His reason? “The Race to the Top program expands the federal role in education by offering pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington,” Zais said in a statement back in 2011. “More federal money for education will not solve our problems. Schools need less, not more, federal intrusion to increase student achievement.”

And during Zais’ tenure, South Carolina was hit with a $36 million penalty for making cuts to special education funding. Congress ultimately passed legislation that allowed the state to keep the money.

In 2015, Zais said he supported expanding education about gun rights.

“Dr. Zais has spent the majority of his life in service to our country—from his 31 years as a solder in the Army to his tireless work on behalf of students as both a college president and superintendent of education,” DeVos said in a statement. “He has a unique skillset that will be a tremendous asset as we work to give every child in America equal access to a great education. It is my hope that the Senate will act quickly to confirm him.”

And Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, had warm words for Zais.

“A former state chief would bring important perspective to the U.S. Department of Education, especially in such a key position,” he said in a statement. “State chiefs are working to deliver an equitable education to all kids under the Every Student Succeeds Act, and I look forward to working with Dr. Zais and the U.S. Department of Education to support our nation’s students.”

Zais wasn’t DeVos’ first pick for the deputy secretary gig. The administration had originally hoped to nominate Al Hubbard, a Lumina Foundation board member who worked on economic issues during both Bush administrations, for the job. But Hubbard had to drop out because it would have been too costly to untangle financial conflicts of interest.

Before becoming state chief, Zais also served as the president of Newbery College in South Carolina. And he served for 31 in the U.S. Army, retiring with the rank of brigadier general.

DeVos was confirmed as secretary in February. Peter Oppenheim, a former aide to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is already serving as the assistant secretary in charge of congressional affairs.

And last week, the White House nominated Jim Blew, a veteran school choice advocate, as the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy. Meanwhile, Carlos Muñiz, who worked for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is under consideration in the Senate to serve as the agency’s general counsel.

South Carolina State Education Superintendent Mick Zais is interviewed in 2014 in Columbia, S.C.--Jeffrey Collins/AP-File

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