COLUMBIA - In an effort to spare deep budget cuts to classrooms, South Carolina schools chief Mick Zais has recommended cutting $31,000 for Holocaust education. But legislative leaders said Wednesday that's one budget line they won't touch.
Zais said teaching the Jewish Holocaust is vital, but that it's already taught as part of regular middle school lessons. A separate designation isn't necessary as the state faces a $700 million shortfall, he said.
The suggestion wasn't made flippantly, he said, noting his ancestors are Jewish and his late father was the Army's only Jewish four-star general, who fought the Nazis as a paratrooper commander in World War II
"I was just looking for any areas that we can get some savings," said Zais, a retired Army brigadier general. "The Holocaust is covered three times in state standards."
But the chairman of the state Council on the Holocaust, the beneficiary of the designation, said the money is used for training, trips and classroom materials. Just because state standards mention the Holocaust doesn't mean teachers are adequately trained or supplied to teach it, said Chairman Sheldon Smith.
"The council is trying to build a cadre of South Carolina teachers who could learn from each other," he said.
Created in 1989, the council leverages the state money for private donations and in-kind contributions. An early project involved extensive interviews with Holocaust survivors and liberators.
Since 1995, the council has partnered with Columbia College to offer a weeklong summer graduate course on the Holocaust to roughly 30 teachers, who pay just $125 each for the three-hour credit course. The council also sends two teachers each summer to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous' conference in New York by paying for their transportation and a negotiated $650 each.
Teachers also apply for grants of less than $1,000 for books, audiotapes, or help paying for students to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
"It represents a commitment by the state to honor those survivors. It's one little line item in a great big thick budget for the Department of Education," said Smith, a retired Columbia College history professor. "It's not his money."
At least seven states mandate the teaching of Holocaust history, according to the federal Holocaust museum.
Sen. Joel Lourie, the state's only Jewish legislator, said he was surprised Zais singled out the council's money.
"Though this is a very difficult year, the return on this minimal amount of dollars is worth 10 times what we spend," said Lourie, D-Columbia, whose late father helped create the council. "Tens of thousands of students have been touched by this program."
Zais made the recommendation last month to the House Ways and Means subcommittee that writes the budget for public schools. The $31,000 was among 25 programs on his list of suggested cuts, which totaled $107 million.
However, that panel, led by House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, later voted to keep the Holocaust money. Zais said he'll work to keep it in place as the budget moves through the GOP-controlled Legislature.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell said he would, too.
"I think it's important to make sure school children never forget that episode of our world's history," said Harrell, R-Charleston.
No other history subject gets a designated amount in the education budget. However, nearly $22,400 flows through the agency for National History Day in grades six through 12, according to the Education Oversight Committee. Zais said he knew nothing about that sum.
Martin Perlmutter, director of the Jewish studies program at the College of Charleston, notes that local entrepreneur Anita Zucker, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, recently gave $1.5 million to the college for Holocaust education. So work in the state will continue regardless, he said.
"Obviously the council does extraordinary good work with a very small budget," Perlmutter said. "It's really an initiative worth continuing, especially when you have genocide going on in various parts of the world, it's important to say there's a group committed to never letting genocide happening again."