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Zais would energize education improvement

The main candidates for state education superintendent bring valuable experience to the race, along with a sincere commitment to public service and to improving the educational opportunities our state provides children. Each also has significant shortcomings — in fact each man’s primary strengths mirror the other’s primary shortcomings.

Frank Holleman is deeply committed to early childhood education and passionately opposed to continuing the disruptive debate over paying parents to send their children to private schools; while he can’t end that debate, he wouldn’t lend its advocates any credence. He helped former Gov. Dick Riley run the massive U.S. Department of Education and gained valuable contacts that he believes would help him secure public and private grants that would provide the only significant infusion of new money into our schools in the next few years.

Mr. Holleman is correct to say there is no single problem in education, and therefore no single solution. But his agenda has a grab-bag feel and seems to be based more on assuring voters that he has the right values than the right ideas. We need both.

Mick Zais promises a sharp focus on reducing South Carolina’s drop-out rate, primarily by making sure kids learn to read, and has a clear understanding — and passion — for where we have to focus our work: on the low-income children who are being left behind. Whether you consider them “chicken” or “egg,” improving the education of these children is essential to our state’s future, and Dr. Zais has worked throughout his career to help underprivileged children make a better life for themselves.

Dr. Zais has a record of getting results, from leading and teaching in the U.S. Army (where he retired as a one-star general) to turning around the financially struggling Newberry College. His real-world experience has produced a commitment to reforms that too many educators reject (and that Mr. Holleman is lukewarm to), from paying the best teachers better and empowering principals and superintendents to fire those who aren’t up to the task to allowing the governor to appoint the superintendent of education.

Where Dr. Zais disappoints is on hot-button political issues: He supports tax credits for convoluted “scholarship-granting organizations” that he says would help poor children leave struggling public schools for private schools; he relies on numbers that are at best open to interpretation to argue that the schools have enough money; he too quickly dismisses the idea of providing more students with more and better early childhood education.

It would be ideal if we could combine Mr. Holleman’s position on these issues with Dr. Zais’ passion for helping the children left behind, his proven ability to make amazing things happen with limited resources and his nearly single-minded focus on improving our high school graduation rate.

But we can’t do that, and while we don’t like the idea of electing someone who supports diverting any of our limited financial resources to private schools, we are not convinced that it serves our state to reject a smart, capable candidate simply because he is on the wrong side of what has become the political litmus test for people on both sides of the issue — particularly when he has refused to embrace more expansive proposals and taken care not to sell them as essential to improving the education our public schools provide. There is no question that it’s risky, but we have concluded that Dr. Zais has enough potential to do good that it is worth taking the chance that the Legislature will continue to wisely reject the few bad ideas that he has adopted.

By “The State” newspaper