HICKS COLUMN: Education chief needs schooling, published 8/16/11
COLUMBIA -- When Jane Pulling considers the $144 million in federal cash South Carolina is passing up, she thinks about children crowding into classrooms at rural Cross Elementary School this week.
Pulling, a retired school administrator who lives in Pinopolis, volunteers at the school and has seen class sizes grow as teachers across the Lowcountry have lost their jobs. Money for classroom supplies is a thing of the past and ongoing training for teachers is squeezed out of the budget, she said.
Pulling and her husband, Verne, interrupted their vacation in North Carolina to join about 50 protesters for a march outside of Superintendent of Education Mick Zais' office on Monday, the deadline for the state to apply for the money from the Education Jobs Fund designed to hire and retain teachers. Despite the deadline, education advocates are searching for a way to bring the money to South Carolina.
The cash is tied to a $10 billion federal economic bailout and is expected to be divided among the other states. The $144 million is enough to cover the salaries for roughly 3,000 teachers this school year, which starts this week for children in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties.
Zais was not swayed by the protesters, according to J.W. Ragley, the department's deputy superintendent for legislative and public affairs. South Carolina does not qualify for the cash because of cuts made to higher education, Zais wrote in a letter to the U.S. Department of Education last week. For the state to qualify, Congress would have to change the eligibility standards. Zais, a Republican, said he opposed the bailout cash as a candidate and remains stalwart in his position.
Still, Molly Spearman, executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, said advocates are pursuing every avenue available to them to get the cash, including asking the U.S. Department of Education for an extension. Spearman said members of the State Board of Education also have concerns.
Larry Kobrovsky of Sullivan's Island, who represents Berkeley and Charleston counties on the board, said he sides with Zais on the matter. He suspects the issue will play out at the board's meeting Thursday, much the same as a similar matter over $10 million to $50 million in Race to the Top money for South Carolina preschool programs.
The board voted 13-3 in June to ask Zais to reconsider his position and apply for that money.
Kobrovsky was one of the three who voted against that action. He said he supports Zais, and notes the superintendent's consistency since he was a candidate.
Congress and the U.S. Department of Education's attempts to influence South Carolina public schools is akin to a national school board, Kobrovsky said.
"I don't think the constitution allows that," he said.
Whether the state board could force Zais to act could be up to legal interpretation. But even if the federal government would give education advocates more time to force Zais to take the money, Spearman said many obstacles are in their way. Without the state's top leadership, including Gov. Nikki Haley, fighting for the money, Spearman said federal authorities will be reluctant to direct the cash to South Carolina.
Haley supports Zais, the governor's spokesman said last week.
The Pullings from Pinopolis said Zais is playing politics.
"I think the tea party is trying to establish itself as a force," Verne Pulling said. "It's for his political benefit at the children's expense."
Gwendolyn Robinson of Mount Pleasant, a mother and community activist, joined the protest to voice her concern about the state's future. Improving South Carolina public schools for all children should be the focus, she said.
"I wonder about a governor who would blow off $144 million -- we're suffering and you're going to blow off that money," Robinson said. "This is what makes us laughing-stocks."
A handful of counter protesters joined the fray, led by Ray Moore of Frontline Ministries. Moore said he supports Zais. He did acknowledge that rejecting the cash for South Carolina schools helps accomplish his goal, which is to collapse the public school system and allow churches to educate the population.
"It's not really money; it's debt," Moore said.