Politics & Government

Democrats build case against man who wants to be Betsy DeVos’ deputy


South Carolina Democrats, educators and education activists raged against the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Education Department secretary. Now they’re prepping a second round of fury against the man picked to be her No. 2 — South Carolina’s Mick Zais.

“He was close to being a disaster,” said State Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, of Zais’s tenure as the State Superintendent of Education.

“This is a very disappointing nomination,” Kathy Maness, president of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, agreed.

Zais was nominated by President Donald Trump on Tuesday night to be Deputy Secretary of Education, and he is likely to face a similar level of scrutiny as DeVos. Like his potential new boss, Zais has been criticized for favoring school choice, private schools and charter schools at the expense of bolstering traditional forms of public education.

Unlike DeVos, however, Zais has a record from serving in the education community — a record that critics will draw from as they draft arguments to undermine his qualifications.

In announcing Zais’s nomination, the White House praised him for increasing the number of public charter schools by 78 percent and the number of public charter school students by 155 percent during his four-year term.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos toured the Kansas City Academy in 2017 where students let her know they cared about transgender rights, women's rights and the arts in school.

It did not mention his work on public education because, his critics back in South Carolina say, he did nothing to benefit the system serving the vast majority of South Carolina students. During his tenure, which ran from 2011-2015, Zais refused to apply for various federal grant programs for public education despite pleas from the State Board of Education.

State Sen. Brad Hutto, another Orangeburg Democrat, recalled the school board threatened to file a lawsuit to compel Zais to apply for grants, which might have resulted in an influx of “tens of millions of dollars” for state public education. Ultimately, the state missed the application window.

In his announcement that South Carolina would decline to compete for some of the $200 million being offered to states as part of President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative, Zais said the program “expands the federal role in education by offering pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington. More federal money for education will not solve our problems.”

As South Carolina’s elected education superintendent, Zais rejected the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which has long been a target of political conservatives who see it as federal interference into an issue that should be decided by locally. Zais also disapproved of caps on classroom sizes, which many educators say are necessary to ensure each student receives adequate attention.

Maness said Zais’s legacy was about clashing with members of the state’s education community, resulting in such low morale that Zais’ successor, Molly Spearman, has had to rebuild from the ground up. Maness recalled one time when Zais was invited to speak to a South Carolina District Teachers of the Year event and used his remarks as an opportunity to denigrate classrooms in the state rather than offer praise to award recipients.

“It was a hard four years in South Carolina because Dr. Zais did not try to get along with the education community,” Manass said. “That example when he came to talk to the teachers of the year — it’s unacceptable to do that to our best and brightest.”

Scott Price, a member of the South Carolina School Boards Association, was more diplomatic in his assessment of Zais’ tenure, calling it a “mixed bag.” He said state educators appreciated some of Zais’ efforts to get rid of the kinds of state and federal regulations that can stifle innovation in classrooms, along with Zais’ opposition to mandating high-stakes testing, which can sometimes get in the way of actual teaching.

Price noted that because of Zais’ hands off approach to education policy, he did not leave any “lasting influence” on the state, except perhaps to instill some sense within the education community that teachers should not expect any help or resources from the S.C. Department of Education.

“It was a missed opportunity,” was how Hutto characterized it.

Zais, who won his post in 2010 with 51 percent of the vote, did not seek reelection at the end of his term. Earlier in his career, he was president of Newberry College and before that a brigadier general in the Army. Since leaving his superintendent post, educators in the state say he has mostly stayed quiet, which made his nomination Tuesday evening even more of a surprise than it might have been otherwise.

If South Carolina educators were preparing to pounce on the Zais nomination, outrage was slow to hit Democrats on Capitol Hill, where Zais will appear first before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and then come up for a vote by members of the full legislative body.

The chairman and ranking member of the HELP panel, Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, told McClatchy on Wednesday morning they knew little to nothing about Zais but would eventually get up to speed. Several other Democrats and Republicans on the committee were similarly in the dark about his credentials a little more than 12 hours after Trump had made the announcement.

South Carolina GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, whose phone lines were inundated by angry constituents earlier this year as DeVos’ confirmation vote loomed, were also somewhat vague in their reactions to the news of Zais’s nomination.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., praised Zais as “great guy, terrific guy,” whose nomination he would “enthusiastically support.”

Scott, a school choice advocate and member of the HELP Committee with longstanding ties to DeVos, released a statement to McClatchy offering his “congrats” to the deputy secretary nominee.

“I look forward to hearing how Mr. Zais plans to continue to help the Department of Education ensure all of our children have access to a quality education,” he said.

On the other side of the Capitol, the South Carolina delegation’s lone Democrat, Assistant House Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, chose not to expound on Zais’ nomination. All he would say is that Zais and DeVos are, in his words, “two peas in a pod.”

Jamie Self of The State contributed to this report.

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain