Zero hour at hand for state's education establishment

January 10, 2011 

On Nov. 2, South Carolinians chose Nikki Haley to be their new governor, the first time a non-male, non-white has ever been elected to the state's highest office. And as one of her earliest and strongest supporters, I am confident Haley will be an excellent governor who will tirelessly work to restrict government to its core functions and maximize the free market and individual liberty.

But in the wake of Haley's historic election, often overlooked is the tremendous significance of another decision made by South Carolinians the very same day: to make Mick Zais -- a retired U. S. Army general who has a record of success in turning around dysfunctional education systems -- our state's next superintendent of education.

Zais has his work cut out for him, for when it comes to public education in South Carolina, the bad news is all too familiar -- 110,000 students trapped in persistently failing schools, 30,000 students per high school class fail to graduate on time and 87 public high schools identified as "dropout factories."

The societal costs of these abysmal education outcomes are staggering. For example, the probability that a high-school dropout receives Medicaid benefits is 64 percent higher than for a graduate, and a high-school dropout is more than twice as likely as a graduate to be incarcerated. Each new class of dropouts costs our state $98 million every year.

But as Zais understands, the problem is not a lack of money. This year, total per-pupil spending in South Carolina is $11,242 per student in spending. (Compare that, for example, to the $8,500 per student spent by North Carolina.) The problem, or at least one of them, is that too little of that money -- 44 cents per educational dollars -- make its way into the classroom to pay teachers and educate students.

Too much is simply soaked up by the educational bureaucracy.

And that's the first place where Zais will make a difference. Gov. Mark Sanford's executive budgets for the past eight years identified millions of dollars in savings that could be realized if the superintendent implemented common-sense administrative reforms -- and for the past eight years, those suggested reforms have been ignored. But they won't be ignored this year.

Zais will slice away at the bloated education bureaucracy to maximize the dollars spent in the classroom, on things such as teacher salaries, textbooks, software and other instructional supplies. Education bureaucrats have joked for years about how Sanford's executive budgets made excellent doorstops, safe in the knowledge that a sympathetic superintendent would protect their jobs. Now those budgets will serve as the road map for a reform-minded superintendent determined to eliminate waste.

But an even bigger change is in store for the education establishment in South Carolina. One overriding message was central to Zais' successful campaign: The key to improving our state's system of education is empowering parents and teachers to make real choices about what works in the classroom and to decide which classroom is the best fit for each student.

In other words, excellence in education does not come as a result of the dizzyingly high stacks of legislation and regulations passed by politicians. We don't need more top-down mandates from "experts" at the state and national level; we need to bring the energy of markets into our system of education.

Zais is determined to do precisely that.

Many cringe when they hear "free market" and "education" used in the same sentence. But I truly don't understand why.

The free market, with its emphasis on individual choice and competition and its assumption that such will lead to the delivery of higher quality goods and services for lower prices, has allowed us to achieve a level of prosperity unmatched in history. There is no reason to believe that something that delivers excellence in our economy will not do the same in education.

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff; it is something that has worked in other states. For example, 10 years ago Florida began to offer all families public and private school choice, and it has been a huge success. The public school graduation rate is greatly improved, as are the reading scores of fourth- and eighth-grade students

South Carolinians finally have a state superintendent of education who will help, not work against, legislators who want to bring about these sorts of reforms and improvements.

Change won't be easy, however. Power will not be surrendered willingly. And the head of the state's School Board Association actually said she would "go to battle" with Zais over the issue of providing more educational choices for families.

That is a battle I know that the retired U. S. Army general relishes. And I am ready to provide him with whatever help he needs to win. The bottom line is we can no longer sit and wait for the "great ideas" from politicians or education bureaucrats to solve the problems in our local schools. Those problems will be solved by parents making choices that are best for their children and by teachers responding to those choices.

Socialism doesn't work in economics, and it doesn't work in education, either.

Tom Davis is the state senator for Beaufort County. He can be reached at tom@senatortomdavis.com.

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