BALOG COLUMN: Zais needs to change grant tune
Take that, Mick Zais.
The Charleston County School District wound up with a national grant to improve education and prepare students for the future, no thanks to our state superintendent of education.
As Diette Courrégé Casey reported this week, Charleston is one of 16 applicants to earn federal funding through the Race to the Top District grants.
Zais, like many Republicans, is against increasing the federal government's role in state education, and by extension, against the grants.
“We are in agreement with Dr. Zais that grants are short-term funding, yet they can be a catalyst to build a foundation for the future,” Charleston Schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley said.
In other words, they won't be hiring new teachers whom they won't be able pay when the grant ends — only two part-time hires are projected.
Instead, they'll focus on creating sustainable systems, such as building a single integrated data system so everyone — children, teachers, administrators, parents and guardians — can track student progress. The district could not afford to create something like that on its own without an influx of money, McGinley said.
Usually that means a tax increase, which Zais surely wouldn't like either.
Go your own way
Zais pretty much hated the idea of this federal funding. He was transparent about it during his campaign, and his position hasn't changed — not even in 2011 when the state school board took a vote asking him to reconsider. At that time, they needed his approval to apply for the funding at the state level — the state had a pretty good shot at that funding as applications were limited to fewer than 10 states that narrowly missed the first round.
“If we turn down the federal money being offered in these grants, that money is going to other states,” McGinley correctly pointed out.
But that doesn't matter to Zais, who wrote in a letter to the editor in July 2011 that taking the federal funding forces states to “dance to Washington's tune on education.”
Funny, it sounds like the Charleston school district put together its own band.
Focusing on what matters
The district, like all applicants, submitted a substantial plan, and they received strong scores throughout for their plan to target educational instruction on an individual level.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday, “The Race to the Top District grantees have shown tremendous leadership though developing plans that will transform the learning environment and enable students to receive a personalized, world-class education.”
The district has been awarded $62 million in competitive federal grants since September 2010, winning 10 of 11 grants for which it has applied.
“I just feel very fortunate that our track record has been worthy of national recognition,” McGinley said.
So yes, all eyes will be on South Carolina as the district works to implement its goals for individualized instruction. It's a rare chance to get in the spotlight for the right reason, and it's a huge credit to the leadership of McGinley and her team, as well as a reinforcement of the district's Vision 2016 plan.
The grant funding is a winning strategy. The students win because they're learning and becoming successful. The district wins because more students will graduate and enter the workforce or post-secondary education more prepared. The state wins because better-educated, better-prepared students are more likely to become productive and employable citizens.
“We're willing to share with the state of South Carolina and other districts what we learn,” McGinley added.
It's just too bad Zais couldn't see past his own campaign rhetoric to get on board.
Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or firstname.lastname@example.org.