When the dust settled on the 2006 statewide election, private school voucher opponents claimed victory — after all, a Democrat won the race for Education Superintendent. During the campaign, Republican candidate Karen Floyd, now the state Republican Party chairwoman, was understandably cagey about her support for vouchers or tax credits for private school tuitions. But thousands of dollars poured into her campaign from voucher supporters outside of the state, while her opponent, Jim Rex, ran largely on his opposition to the proposal.
Four years later, tax credits are back at the forefront of the superintendent's race. This time, Democrat Frank Holleman is facing an electorate much more skeptical of Dems, while Republican Mick Zais isn't shy about his support for private school tax credits.
Pro-School Choice: The public debate over private school tax credits has opened up a larger conversation about public school choice, including community-driven charter schools overseen by parents and teachers instead of district administrators. As a top aid to U.S. Education Secretary Dick Riley, Holleman was a leader in overseeing public charter school programs. "My experience in school reform is long and deep," Holleman says.
Anti-Private School Tax Credits: Holleman says tax credits would take much-needed money out of public schools, hurting extracurricular activities that are often first on the chopping block, like arts and after-school programs. "Most people in the state are opposed to turning their back on public schools," Holleman says, noting that some private schools don't want state meddling. "I'm not an opponent of quality private schools, but they're not a fit for public dollars."
Early Childhood: After leading the state's Head Start early childhood education program, Holleman, not surprisingly, sees South Carolina's potential for improvement in preparing students as early as possible. The programs, he says, fosters pre-reading skills. "It can make all the difference in the outcomes regarding high school and college rates," Holleman says.
National Standards: A large part of South Carolina's success will be in partnering and competing with other states through programs like the Common Core Standards and the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top. "We need state leadership pushing us to the front of the country in innovation," he says. Holleman's experience as a leader in Washington and the state could also be an asset.
Funding: While S.C. struggles to meet its promises on school funding, Holleman says the entire funding formula needs to be reviewed, with a focus on funding being "equitable, stable, and adequate."
No Politician: A retired brigadier general, Zais went on to be president of Newberry College, a "value-based" private school founded by the Lutheran Church. He considers his lack of political experience an asset. "People are tired of politicians in the superintendent's office," he says, pointing to the failed Senate run by Inez Tenenbaum and the recent gubernatorial primary loss by Superintendent Jim Rex.
Improvement: Zais says parents and voters want someone who can change the school system. "People understand that our students aren't any less talented, less able, or less motivated," he says. "The schools are failing them."
Funding: Zais supports getting more money to classrooms and teachers — a common election-year theme. "Teachers are to education what doctors are to medicine," he says. To find that money, he'd target spending on administrators. Zais also says that per-student spending should follow a child if the student transfers and that districts should have more leeway in how they distribute dollars.
Graduating: Zais would focus on targeted reading programs in K-6, with increased coursework for students based on need. He'd also reform high school programs to develop different curriculums depending on the student's post-graduation plans, dividing students between college preparation, career or technical education, or basic courses to prepare for the general workforce.
Private Schools, Too: Zais is an advocate for a variety of options for parents, including private schools. "We need to provide alternatives," he says. "In some communities the only choice other than the neighborhood school is a private Christian school or academy." Zais supports targeted tax credits for low income families and tax breaks for scholarship organizations. He says it won't take money directly out of classrooms. "You get a tax break for your energy efficient appliances or renovating a historic home."