Wednesday, 11 a.m. — Finally, we meet Jim Rex. About time, too, with less than six weeks to go before he faces Karen Floyd. And so it is that we are able to answer the question that so many have asked since we last looked in on the contest to replace Inez Tenenbaum: Is there more to Jim Rex than not being the official PPIC candidate?
Well, yes. After all, the man has spent 30 years in education, from K-12 to higher ed, both public and private — ending as president of Columbia College. He’s retired from all that (except for some consulting work), he seems well off, he doesn’t need a job.
But he wants to make the public schools in South Carolina better, so he’s running for this office. He was talked into it by Dick Riley, who stressed two arguments:
- South Carolina needs an educator in the job.
- This is likely to be the highest-stakes election for the future of education "in our lifetimes."
Mr. Rex says he appreciates those of us who have been sticking up for the hard-won progress that our public schools have made, in the face of years of denigration by the governor, SCRG and others whose goal is to persuade our state to despair and give up the daunting, expensive (and the expensive is what actually matter to them) enterprise of trying to educate all of our children.
But for his part, he’s frustrated with how the schools are doing. He has been for a couple of decades. While he sees "incremental progress," it’s not enough because we’re not catching up to the rest of the nation.
"What our state desperately needs," he says, is "a comprehensive plan to reform, improve and support public education." And you need all three — you can’t reform without support, you can’t improve without reform, and you won’t get support without improvement.
The issue is whether the state will buckle down and undertake that task. "My election is a referendum, I hope, once and for all" in favor of the mission of education, "and a denunciation of distractions." For that reason the former high school English teacher and football coach (he said his players told him he was the only coach they’d ever had who yelled at them in complete sentences) plans to "go on the offense for public education."
His intent would be to spend his first 12 months in office building grass-roots support for his comprehensive plan, "so that when we roll it out, no matter who the governor is" or who is running the Legislature, they won’t be able to stand in the way of the changes.
He wants to instill in South Carolinians the kind of spirit that ran through the state when Mr. Riley was governor: "(T)here was a feeling of optimism. There was a feeling that South Carolina can be as good as anybody and better than most. And we haven’t had that" for a long time.
It’s good to hear from someone who thinks we’re up to the challenge. The last time anyone running for office said we "desperately needed" something, it was Jim Hodges. And he was talking about the lottery. Mr. Rex agrees with me that the lottery is "not too dissimilar from saying, ‘Let’s have a voucher.’" Both approaches are nihilistic. Both are about saying, "We can’t do this together." Both are about placing one’s hopes on individual venality, rather than working together to achieve the common good.
Here are the five main components of the comprehensive approach to education reform that he would advocate:
- Innovation. He says that sure, there is plenty of innovation already, here and there in the public schools across the state, but "most of that we have occurs in spite of the state, not because of it." South Carolina can’t just hope for individual initiatives here and there to pull it up; it’s going to take a concerted effort. "We’re doing too many things still, far too many things, that don’t work."
- More options and flexibility. "Americans expect choices," and public schools need to deliver it, shifting from a rigid structure something that offers a lot more options to kids and parents. The answer to that demand, however, is most certainly not "this serpent called vouchers."
- Reforming reforms. "In every pill there’s a bit of poison," and even the best cures have had their harmful elements. For instance, he believes that while the PACT does a pretty good job of measuring accountability, it’s too expensive, too cumbersome, and has come to loom over the school year to the point that teachers teach to the test too much. The accountability function could be accomplished just as well by sampling the student population, rather than everyone having to take it. If everyone’s going to take a test, it should be something more diagnostic, which would help teachers know how to help individual students.
- Elevate and rejuvenate the teaching profession. It’s not only not attracting enough people, it’s not attracting enough of the right people. He cites his roles in establishing the Teacher Cadets program and the PACE program. The first helps promising young people who show an interest in education to continue on that path. The second allows people with valuable knowledge and experience to become teachers without having to go through college again.
- Adequately fund education for all children. In other words, fix the inequity that causes those in the Corridor of Shame and other poor areas to fall further behind.
"I don’t think any one, two or three of those things can take us where we need to go. I think we need all five," he said.
He has no qualms about taking on the education establishment. He spent two hours talking to the SCEA — which ended up endorsing him — and spent an hour of that talking about a form of merit pay.
Sure, educators always protest that such an approach can’t be administered fairly, but he doesn’t swallow that. "If you ask any teacher who are the best and worst teachers" in their schools, "they would know."
"And yet, at the end of the year, they all get the same pay increases," which makes no sense.
Teachers, he said, are going to have to lead the change, not stand in the way of it. "I’ve told educators, it’s kind of now or never."