Zais displays flexibility (copy)

Former South Carolina State Superintendent Of Education Dr. Mick Zais. Grace Beahm/File/Staff

COLUMBIA — Throughout his four-year tenure as South Carolina's education superintendent, Mick Zais faced constant hurdles as he tried to implement his conservative vision for education policy.

The former Newberry College president regularly feuded with teacher groups and members of the state Board of Education. He spent extensive time grappling with federal bureaucracy. Supporters and critics alike say Zais was never able to fulfill some of his biggest ambitions for the job.

"I wish we could have done more," said Larry Kobrovsky, now the Charleston County GOP chairman and one of the few former members of the state board who was fully supportive of Zais' efforts. "But the power of the superintendent of education in South Carolina is only persuasive. He didn't really have a vote."

When he decided not to run for re-election, many in the Palmetto State assumed Zais would be leaving public life for good to spend more time with his family.

“My campaign was never a stepping stone to higher office," he said at the time. "Rather, it was the culmination of a lifetime of service.”

Now, the 70-year-old ex-Army general is coming out of retirement for a chance to ascend to the second-ranking role at the U.S. Department of Education. This time he'll get to link arms with like-minded proponents of smaller government in an effort to pursue the changes he always wanted.

In keeping with a trend across the Trump administration, Zais would serve as another high-ranking official inside a Cabinet agency who has battled with that same agency in the past, lambasting what he views as federal overreach.

“He didn’t accomplish a great deal while he was here in South Carolina," said Jim Rex, the Democratic predecessor to Zais as the state’s education chief. "But he may have a different set of dynamics going up to the federal level that may allow him to be more productive."

Controversial background

As the former commanding general of U.S. and allied forces in Kuwait and the Pentagon’s chief of war plans, Zais has seen his fair share of tense situations. But soon after winning the state superintendent race, he learned just how combative his new role could be, too.

One of Zais' first major decisions after becoming state superintendent — refusing to accept $144 million in federal cash for public schools in the state — set the stage for his consistently combative relationship with teachers and public education advocates.

"He's a radical libertarian ideologue, so taking federal money was distasteful to him," said Patrick Hayes, a Charleston County elementary school teacher who launched a nonprofit in support of public education partially as a response to what he perceived as Zais' efforts to undermine it.

His attempt to give teachers letter grades based on student standardized test scores further infuriated them.

But Zais has critics on his right, too. Sheri Few, who founded a national organization of parents opposed to federal involvement in education, viewed Zais as insufficiently committed to opposing Common Core or championing the cause of smaller government.

"He made some good decisions but towards the end we couldn't get any help from him," said Few, who lost in the GOP primary to succeed Zais.

While Zais, who could not be reached for comment, does consistently oppose "overly intrusive mandates from Washington," he has cast himself as more of a moderate than his detractors would suggest.

“People often ask me how are we doing in education,” Zais said when he announced his December 2013 decision not to run for 2014 re-election. “My response is supporters of the current system defend it at all costs. Others seek to tear it down without looking at the data. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.”

Zais confirmation

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When Zais was nominated for the federal post, some education experts expected a sequel to the protracted fight over Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who became one of Trump's most controversial nominees and sparked a mass deluge of calls to Senate offices urging them to oppose her. For the first time in Senate history, the vice president was required to break a tie in a confirmation vote, as all 48 Democrats and two Republicans voted against DeVos.

In his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, Zais pointed to DeVos as one of the principle reasons he decided to jump back into the fray and accept the nomination.

“It was Secretary DeVos’ vision and record of commitment to students and parents that inspired me to undertake this task,” Zais said.

Despite his similar views to DeVos, Zais has faced less intense pushback in his Senate confirmation process. But he did butt heads at times with Democrats on the Senate education panel. In one particularly combative exchange, Minnesota Sen. Al Franken questioned whether Zais had reviewed major research about the impact of vouchers on student performance.

After Zais initially suggested that, to his knowledge, voucher programs have a positive impact on student outcomes, Franken cited a litany of studies showing the opposite, and he pressed Zais into admitting that he was basing his answer on anecdotal information.

But the hearing was far from the cable news spectacle of DeVos' process. Confirmation for the deputy position is naturally less high-profile than the top role. Congress was laser-focused on tax reform efforts this week. And with more experience than DeVos at both the K-12 and higher education level, Democratic senators had less of a case that Zais would be wholly unqualified for the job.

The committee has not yet scheduled a vote on Zais but his supporters eagerly await his likely arrival at the department.

"It's very exciting," said Kobrovsky, the former board of education member from Charleston. "He certainly has the intelligence and the drive and the experience, and he's in line with the philosophy of the new administration, which is what you want. Obviously these policies are not the choice of everybody. But elections have consequences."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.