by Paul Bowers
State Education Superintendent Mick Zais announced via Twitter today that he will not seek re-election in 2014.
"For the last 45 years of my life, my family has made enormous sacrifices to support my careers, moving around the country and the world many times," Zais, a former Army brigadier general and president of Newberry College, said in a press release. "They mean more to me than anything on this planet. That is why, after much prayer and thoughtful consideration with my family, I have decided not to seek re-election as state Superintendent of Education."
Zais, a Republican, was elected in 2010 with 51 percent of the vote. He took the reins of a longtime Democrat-led S.C. Department of Education, and his conservative stances have made headlines a few times in during his single term in office. In 2011, Zais famously refused to apply for $50 million worth of federal Race to the Top funds and another $144 million in funds from a federal teaching job program, earning the ire of statewide teacher associations. Zais said he rejected the money because it was nonrecurring.
More recently, Zais asked the State Board of Education to consider a piece of legislation that would eliminate classroom size caps and mandatory staffing levels for most grades and subjects. The board gave the legislation near-unanimous approval at its first reading in September 2013, but after the City Paper revealed the plan and teachers and parents sent a flurry of angry letters to boardmembers, the proposal faced near-unanimous disapproval on a second reading in November. Zais withdrew his proposal before the second reading took place.
Zais says in his press release that he is confident he would be re-elected if he were to run for a second term.
"There remains much work left to be done," Zais says. "But the whole conversation about education in South Carolina has changed since I entered office. Then, most were defending the current system, fighting to maintain the status quo. Today, nearly everyone recognizes that the one-size-fits-all system just doesn't work for far too many students."
Zais' predecessor, former Democratic Superintendent Jim Rex, says that the "discord" between some school district employees and the state Department of Education under Zais' watch is "regrettable." Rex also disagrees with Zais' long-held stance against the nationwide Common Core education standards and Zais' advocacy for tax breaks and vouchers to support parents who put their children in private schools.
"Mick Zais has probably not had a lasting detrimental or positive impact on the public school system," Rex says. "I think it's been a lull in the reform effort and that hopefully our state will get serious about and pursue it in the next administration."
In the 2014 election, one Democratic contender will be Montrio Belton, a former teacher and administrator from Fort Mill who previously served as director of school transformation under the Zais administration. State Rep. Mike Anthony (D-Union), a former public school teacher and football coach, has also announced his intention to run. No Republicans have announced their intent to enter the race yet; Zais said until recently that he planned to run for re-election.
Anthony gave the following statement in response to Zais' announcement:
While I disagree with Dr. Zais on many important issues, I wish to thank him for his work and willingness to serve South Carolina. I believe that it’s extremely important that the next superintendent of education make our public schools their top priority. It’s time to stop the attempts to funnel money away from our public schools into private academies. We need a superintendent who supports our teachers and puts our kids first. This is not a position for extreme ideologies and partisanship. I spent four decades in the classroom and on the football field and I look forward to using my experience to move our schools in a new direction.
Rex, who recently announced the formation of the independent American Party, says the party might put up a candidate as well.