The state's first Republican schools superintendent in 12 years wants to move teacher and principal salaries into a mandatory pay-for-performance system. A proposal moving through the House, and backed by GOP legislative leaders, could direct Zais to develop such a plan by Dec. 1, for implementation beginning in 2012-13.
Zais told The Associated Press during an interview last week that the state's best teachers should be paid much more, while inferior teachers should be tossed.
"We can't sacrifice the future of our children to provide job security for teachers or administrators who aren't effective," he said. "I don't think we pay our best teachers nearly enough. I think we pay our worst teachers far too much."
Under the state's current salary schedule, minimum salaries are set by state law. Teachers make more money for each additional year in the classroom, up to 22 years, and for additional degrees, such as masters and doctorates. This year, a first-year teacher with a bachelor's receives almost $29,000, while a teacher with a doctorate and at least 22 years experience gets about $61,600. Teachers who earn a National Board Certification currently get an extra $7,500 annually for 10 years.
Those are the state minimums. Many districts pay more to compete.
But Zais points to studies that show experience only matters during a teacher's first four years in the classroom, and that postgraduate degrees and certifications don't seem to boost student learning.
So he wants to compensate teachers based on how much students learn in their classroom - determined by tests they take at the beginning and end of the school year - along with evaluations from students, parents, principals and fellow teachers. Teachers in certain hard-to-fill subjects - such as physics, chemistry and biology - should also be paid more, he said.
The shortage exists "because we ignore the market. We don't pay what the market demands," Zais said. "We need to pay what we need to pay to get the quality that our students deserve."
The best teachers should make more than their principals, he said.
Statewide, the average salary is $47,500 for teachers, $68,370 for assistant principals and $82,650 for principals, according to the agency, though salaries vary widely based on a district's tax base.
"Teachers are to education what doctors are to medicine ... but if you go into a hospital, we pay doctors a lot more than we pay medical administrators," Zais said.
The details are still in the works, as he studies ideas from elsewhere, he said.
And he believes the state can fund the increases without asking the Legislature for more money, partly by ending training programs in the state's worst-performing schools. Too much money is spent trying to improve performance by teaching teachers to teach and principals to lead, he said, rather than by recruiting the best teachers up front with better pay.
Legislators are again considering closing the national certification stipend to new applicants. While Zais doesn't believe the certification translates to increased learning, he hasn't taken a stance on whether lawmakers should close the program, expected to cost $58 million this fiscal year and $68 million next.
The chances that legislators will approve a teacher salary overhaul in this year's session are good in a GOP-controlled state that lacks union bargaining rights for teachers. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has also advocated pay-for-performance. Though a state affiliate of the National Education Association exists in South Carolina, state law bars them from collective bargaining.
A teacher advocacy group says any compensation plan should pay teachers for advanced degrees. If we don't, teachers will have no incentive to go back to college and further their skills, said Kathy Maness of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.
She said any pay-for-performance plan should include other gauges, such as rewards for mentoring others, sponsoring clubs and teaching in the poorest-performing schools. She said the group will fight evaluations from parents, whose outlook may depend on their child's grade or the ease of the class.
"They should be paid for going above and beyond," Maness said. She's pushing for the bill to require that compensation talks include input from teachers.
Zais also wants to restructure principal compensation, and create a principal-training program that involves an apprenticeship.
"Getting a master's degree in education administration no more prepares you to be a principal than studying football prepares you to be a coach," he said.