Extras from Tenenbaum meeting

There were a few points of interests from our Thursday editorial board meeting with Inez Tenenbaum that didn’t fit into my column Sunday.

First, she made a number of comments that — despite her continued attempts to be diplomatic — betrayed the degree to which her frustration with Gov. Mark Sanford has grown over the past couple of years. Since he came into office, at the same time that her second term began, she has gone out of her way to be at least neutral toward the governor, if not actually reaching out and trying to build bridges. For instance, she was the only major constitutional officer (as I recall; Cindi or someone correct me if I’m wrong, since I’m at home and have limited access to the archives) to go along with his desire to have her job become appointive rather than elected. Given the partisan currents that swirled all around this issue, the fact that the individual at the center had an accepting attitude should have been very helpful. Beyond that, the superintendent met with the governor once or twice early on, and this encouraged me that two people whose elections I had strongly favored would be able to rise above the partisan and ideological considerations that would have separated lesser individuals. All of this encouraged me greatly in early 2003.

But as time wore on, while the governor continued to say things to me that indicated his willingness to work with Mrs. Tenenbaum (and to this day, while he has shared with me — off the record, of course — negative impressions of a number of other leading political figures, within and without his own party, I don’t remember when he has directly criticized Mrs. Tenenbaum in my hearing), there was a lack of reciprocation on his part that was discouraging. He seemed noncommital personally, and among his administration and its fellow travelers there was a sort of passive-aggressive (and sometimes aggressive-aggressive) antipathy toward Mrs. Tenenbaum and her department that doused my hopes for a productive working relationship between them.

Then, of course, there was the larger problem: It became clear by early 2004 that the ideological wall between them was just too tall, and too thick. And the wall was constructed by the governor. If ideological rigidity were bricks, he’d have enough to build a full-scale model of the Great Wall of China.

In fact, Mr. Sanford’s insistence upon pushing the mad scheme of tuition tax credits for private school over the past year was, I think, the last straw for Mrs. Tenenbaum. You may say that he was for something like this all along, and indeed he was. But it only became fully apparent about a year ago the extent to which this was something he would pull out all stops to accomplish. He went beyond merely clueless about public education to positively destructive. (He would no doubt object to that characterization, and be sincere about it; that’s because he truly has no idea what public schools are all about, and is blind to the outrageousness of his proposal.)

Anyway, while she said a number of cordial things Thursday about the governor that sounded like her old self, there was a fierce passion in her voice when, right after praising other recent governors of both parties for the things they have done to further the cause of education, she uttered the following remarks with regard to their successor:

The whole thing about vouchers without accountability is just extraordinary.
In South Carolina, we have every aspect of our public schools held accountable — the Adequate Yearly Progress, the report cards — and to give money to a system that has no accountability, for financial or student achievement, is extraordinary. We would never do that.

    And then to, not only stand by and watch it, but actively condone and invite out-of-state groups to come in and run negative ads against public education — was irresponsible. And that’s putting it lightly.
    Why would you attack your school system that you’re the head of? And demoralize people when they are trying so hard, particularly in the rural areas, against all odds? It’s unprecedented.
    If you are trying to compete with other states to bring people into South Carolina and be competitive, you do not run down your public education system.
    You celebrate. You are the one who should be leading the charge, and holding a press conference: “We’re number one in improvement in 8th-grade NAEP; our SAT scores were the highest in improvement in the country…
    You know, that’s what a proactive governor does…

    …Someone has to give people hope.
    You just have to have somebody that will give people hope and excitement, that you can do it if you all pull together.

One of the things that frustrates her (and me) about the whole PPIC affair is the way it has bled energy and attention from the ongoing work of implementing the Education Accountability Act. The irony here, as I’ve often mentioned before, is that this was a reform pushed through by a Republican governor and lawmakers before she entered office in 1999. It was an enormous undertaking that fell into her lap the day she started the job, and one she never asked for. Nevertheless, she took it one and made it her priority — and more importantly, made it WORK. Schools have been getting steadily, measurably better. And yet there are precious few Republicans who join her in taking pride in this progress, and too many who embrace the latest fad — which of course, is the precise opposite of accountability. About that, she lamented:

    Traditionally in South Carolina … South Carolina will create a new initiative and say this is what we’re going to do now, and then we lose focus, and 7 or 8 years later, we’ll want to change course, and change directions…

She cited a Rand Corporation study that was done (or came out) right when she came into office in 1999 that cited Texas and North Carolina as the two states that had done the most on education reform. She and other officials dutifully studied those states to see what they had done right. At the same time, she was much impressed by this bitter irony: “But that same report said, had South Carolina stayed the course on the (Education Improvement Act), we would have been ahead of Texas and North Carolina.”

We do indeed have short attention spans — and not only among politicians. Mrs. Tenenbaum, as I noted in my column Sunday, is pinning her hopes on the private sector being able to overcome the political sphere’s attention deficit. This reminds me of comments Larry Wilson made to our editorial board at the governor’s mansion back in 1997 (or was it ’98?) — he said the business community, which was pushing for what would become the EAA would have to keep the state focused on the goals of accountability over the next 12 years, since election cycles would interfere with continuity.

But I question the extent to which the business community has maintained its focus on the goals of accountability. I’ve seen a number of exciting initiatives come out of the private sector, and then all these high-powered private individuals go on and live their lives, leaving the initiatives to sink or float. And they generally sink.

That must not be allowed to happen with accountability. And yet, the main actors in that process have mostly moved on to other enthusiasms, leaving a less dynamic cadre to carry on. Our only hope is that the process is sufficiently rooted in the system now that it can go on without a lot of heavy pushing. And our greatest fear must be that the reform process will be derailed by either PPIC, or some other dangerous distraction.

4 thoughts on “Extras from Tenenbaum meeting

  1. David

    Inez T. mentioned “vouchers without accountability” and yet the accountability is in the hands of parents, exactly where it should be instead of the educrats, with the tax credit program and/or voucher program. Also, the governor’s role is not to make people feel good about public education. Yes, Inez would highly prefer praise and cheerleading, who would not? But the governor sees himself and his administration as change agents. Change would be very painful to those in charge. And predictably the change agents are attacked. I noted on another thread that free market forces need to have a much heavier influence in education in general.
    To be fair, I agree that many, many people in public education go to work every day and put forth a lot of effort to be successful. The problem is less people oriented than it is systemic. My vantage point I should say is not from Spring Valley or Dutch Fork. I am in one of those more rural areas. What I witness is that the private schools are bulging at the seams with kids whose parents are desparate for high quality, safe, and challenging environments of learning. The real question remains whether most school districts can provide that, and not on some ten year plan.
    Lastly, on a related thread the comments of Bill Gates were sloughed off with the point made that he didn’t offer solutions. Microsoft has launched a number of various offerings that were not winners with their customer base. Windows ME and Microsoft Bob are just two that come to mind. What did MS do with those products? They replaced them and moved on. I think Gates’s point was that the public school systems do not work like that. Just a thought.

  2. LWF

    The idea from the poster David that we can trash education approaches as fast as Microsoft trashes an unsuccessful product is unsound. We’d be replacing education systems every 6 months or so if we measured them on a Wall Street ROI formula.
    Education is a long term investment that requires family participation as much as money. It also requires community support, not the partisan politics that dominates so many issues. It is something we build on, not reinvent every election cycle.
    A good way to improve education is to improve family living conditions, not by give-away programs, but by partnerships such as Habitat for Humanity.
    (I am associated with Habitat, but do not offer that as the only approach).

  3. Doug

    Five things the new Secretary of Education should do:
    1) Push for eliminating multiple school districts per county. What purpose does it serve to have two school districts in Richland County? The administration cost savings would run into the millions…
    2) Mandatory school start date no earlier than the Monday before Labor Day. Give the parents and teachers what they have overwhelmingly asked for. Stop using testing as the excuse. And please stop using the high school block schedule excuse as well. If a student can’t remember what he was taught over Xmas break, than what has he actually learned???
    3) Greater emphasis on real vocational and technical training at the high school level. It can be done well and benefit both the students and the community.
    4) Free admission for everyon to school sports, plays, recitals, etc. Let’s build a community, not a revenue stream.
    5) Replace PACT with a national exam given
    every other year from grade 2-8. We have
    too much data and not enough information
    from PACT. The system of measurement is
    broken, making the numbers meaningless.

  4. Lee

    We have had tuition tax credits and other subidies for COLLEGE choice for almost 30 years. Do you favor repealing all that?

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