S.C. schools chief won't reconsider grant application

Board wants to apply for federal grants
Mick Zais: State schools leader reiterated that South Carolina will not apply for federal education grants.

COLUMBIA --- The South Carolina Board of Education asked the state school superintendent Thursday to reconsider his decision not to apply for federal education grants, showing a rift between the policy-making board and the new Republican officer.


But state schools chief Mick Zais said he will not change his mind.

"The position I take now is the position I've taken over the past year," he said, noting he made it clear on the campaign trail that he does not support federal Race to the Top competitions, which are part of President Obama's economic stimulus.

SOUTH CAROLINA NARROWLY missed winning money in two previous rounds. Those applications were submitted under former Democratic schools chief Jim Rex.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced two weeks ago that South Carolina and eight other finalists could compete for $200 million in grants ranging from $10 million to $50 million each. He also announced $500 million for a third round of Race to the Top specifically for preschool programs.

But Zais immediately issued a statement that he would not seek the money, saying the state's schools need less federal intrusion to succeed, not more.

The policy-making board for K-12 public education voted 13-3 to ask Zais to reconsider. The board has no legal authority over Zais' decision.

Board member Michael Brenan, who is Gov. Nikki Haley's appointee on the board, said the request is moot. Haley will not sign any application for the federal grants, he said.

"Zais and Haley won't sign. Therefore, there will be no application," said Brenan, of Columbia.

But board member Tim Moore, of Snelling, said Zais shouldn't have made such a unilateral decision without at least consulting the board as a courtesy. He said South Carolina taxpayers are contributing to the fund anyway.

"It does not seem to be wise to let our South Carolina money go to California or Illinois," said Moore, a former elementary school principal and football coach. "If the money's going to be spent, why don't we take it? There's no mandate that we do it any particular way. The state adopts its own policies."

SOUTH CAROLINA'S FIRST application last year for $300 million ranked sixth, but only two states were chosen to split $600 million. Its second application for $175 million ranked 14th. Nine states and the District of Columbia were chosen last August to share $3.4 billion.

One board member asked Zais if he would compromise and at least apply for money that pits nine finalists and would require only tweaking a previous application.

But Zais said no. He said re-submitting an application for less money would still require work, and even if the state gets the top amount of $50 million over four years, that breaks down to $12.5 million annually, which isn't a significant amount per student.

And he fears the federal agency would require the state to continue indefinitely any program started with the money, leaving the state to fund it.

"It's not like free money," he said.

Board member Dru James, of Greenwood, said it could buy much-needed technology.

THE THREE BOARD MEMBERS to vote against the resolution were Brenan, Phillip Bowers of Pickens, and Larry Kobrovsky of Sullivans Island.

Kobrovsky said elections have consequences, and he's honored to serve with someone who stands by what he said during the campaign.

"It's no surprise. We were all just hoping once he got elected and in the leadership position, he'd see the big picture and leave the rhetoric behind," said Molly Spearman, the executive director of the state Association of School Administrators.

Her group and other advocates for schools say they will try to find a way to apply for part of the $500 million for preschool without Zais' help. Spearman said they can't do that for the finalist money, because it's a second shot at an earlier round. But the guidelines for round three are still in the works, and they are asking Duncan to allow entities to work with school districts to request the money, she said.



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