Mick Zais plays one to the grandstands 

Tradition Over Education

The Palmetto State Pathology has many symptoms: poor public education, low personal income, and high rates of poverty, crime, divorce, infant mortality, and violence toward women and children, among other things. But all of these symptoms have one origin: a world view among the majority white population focused on past resentments and indignities and incapable of facing the world as it is rather than the way it was or might have been.

We saw a stunning example of this old way of thinking recently when state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais took South Carolina out of the running for up to $50 million in federal grant money for public schools. That $50 million is part of a $200 million pot of money the U.S. Department of Education is handing out to help reform some of the lowest-performing state school systems in the country. South Carolina certainly qualifies.

The money is allocated under a federal education program called Race to the Top. The state applied for one of the Race to the Top grants under previous state Superintendent Jim Rex, a Democrat. Zais, a Republican, campaigned last year against South Carolina's participation in the Race to the Top program. The white people of the state elected him, and Zais made good on his promise. He walked away from millions of dollars that might have supported teachers, schools, and students in this woebegone state.

People outside South Carolina probably have a hard time understanding this decision, but I suspect it is popular enough among Zais' supporters. It hearkens back to the day two years ago when then-Gov. Mark Sanford tried to reject federal stimulus money, even as the state floundered in 10 percent unemployment.

Zais justified his decision, saying that taking federal education money was tantamount to taking "pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington." This is strange logic, indeed, coming from a retired Army general who spent his career taking orders from Washington. Zais' career also includes a stint as president of tiny Newberry College in the Upstate. His resumé does not reflect any experience in public education.

By contrast, his Democratic opponent in last fall's election was Frank Holleman, a Greenville attorney who served as the deputy U.S. secretary of education and helped found the state's First Steps to School Readiness program.

Also at the national level, he worked in the Government Accountability Office's Expert Panel for K-12 Education and was a member of the federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. Holleman understood the value of good connections in Washington.

Holleman has called Greenville his home for more than 30 years. He and his wife are graduates of Furman University, and his children are products of South Carolina public schools. Yet during the fall campaign, his opponents turned his experience against him. In true South Carolina form, they cited his "years in Washington" as a point of suspicion. (Years of experience in Washington never seems to diminish the appeal of Republican politicians. See: Thurmond, Strom.)

What Zais did with the Race to the Top funds was cynical beyond words, yet it is what white politicians have done in this state for generations. When it is convenient, they will readily disparage federal money as corrupt and manipulative. It is a charade that dates back at least to the New Deal, and it elicits strains of pride among whites, who still revere the idea of secession and belligerence toward Washington.

I call it a charade because the same politicians who spend their careers denouncing and denigrating everything that emanates from the national capital would dance on their Confederate granddaddy's grave for the opportunity to go to Congress. And white voters who support those politicians who spurn federal stimulus and education money will re-elect another politician who "brings home the bacon" to build a popular road, airport, or bridge (See: Ravenel, Arthur)

And Zais' cynicism has an even darker side. Sure, many white voters will support him for turning down that evil federal money, but the money was intended to help children, and children don't vote. Zais pulled a grandstand play with little downside, and I am sure he will remind his white supporters of it at the next election.

What were the federal "strings" that were so onerous that they made tens of millions of dollars unpalatable to the superintendent of education? He didn't specify, but it is hard to believe that running schools the Washington way could be any worse than they way we have been doing it for the last 140 years.

As Andy Brack of the Statehouse Report wrote: "Maybe we need these so-called government strings. Why? Because what's been happening so far with us at the bottom of education lists hasn't been working out that well."

But that's tradition, and in the Palmetto State, tradition trumps all.


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