Former South Carolina Schools Chief Could be Nation's No. 2

by Seanna Adcox, Associated Press

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina's former schools chief said Wednesday he's eager to help expand parental options if confirmed as the nation's No. 2 education official.

President Donald Trump this week announced his choice of Mick Zais as deputy secretary of education. The U.S. Senate must confirm the nomination.

Zais said his goals align with those of his would-be boss, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who spent more than two decades promoting charter schools in her home state of Michigan.

Zais told The Associated Press he's excited about furthering "her agenda of providing more options for poor kids stuck in failing schools." He dismissed DeVos' critics as simply those opposed to school choice, particularly the use of tax credits or scholarships to offset private tuition costs -- an idea he has long supported.

Lawmakers approved South Carolina's first private school tuition scholarships in 2013, following nearly a decade of debate that divided the GOP. The program, capped at $11 million in dollar-for-dollar tax credits to donors, is still limited to special-needs students.

"High-income families have school choice. Middle-income families by and large can move to suburbs or highly ranked districts, but low-income kids are stuck if they're in a failing school," said Zais, who supported Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential primary.

The retired Army brigadier general was state education superintendent from January 2011 to 2015. Zais' 2010 campaign marked his first run for political office, after being president of private Newberry College for 10 years. His win put the GOP in charge of all statewide offices. He did not seek a second term.

The White House touted a rise in charter schools and online courses during Zais' tenure, as well as an on-time high school graduation rate that rose to 80.1 percent, a record high in 2014. The latest data shows the 2016 graduating class posted an 82.6 percent rate.

An additional 28 charter schools -- public schools with greater flexibility -- opened during Zais' tenure, compared to 64 over the prior 14 years. Eleven more have opened under his successor, according to the state education agency.

Zais opposed expanding public 4-year-old kindergarten, saying it's too costly and could put private and faith-based programs out of business. He also argued the benefits don't last -- citing reports on the federally funded Head Start program.

He had a contentious relationship with the state school board and teacher advocacy groups he has described as unions. South Carolina bars public workers, including teachers, from collective bargaining.

Controversies included Zais' proposal to evaluate teachers A through F. Zais said a letter grade would clearly communicate to teachers how they're performing. But educators called it degrading, and the state Board of Education sided with them. He also refused to seek federal grants under President Barack Obama's Race to the Top initiative -- despite pleas from the board to reconsider -- saying the state's schools need less federal intrusion to succeed, not more.

"We hope Dr. Zais will be supportive of teachers in the public schools of America. We many times had difficulties with that when he was our state superintendent," said Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

Jay Ragley, Zais' former spokesman, called his former boss a great choice to support DeVos' vision for transforming education and praised Zais' "lifetime of public service."

During Zais' 31 years in the military, he was a paratrooper and Ranger, and served in Korea and Vietnam. Born at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Zais earned an engineering degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and a master's and doctorate in social psychology from the University of Washington.

South Carolinians already in the Trump administration include former Gov. Nikki Haley as United Nations ambassador and former congressman Mick Mulvaney as budget director.
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