Jim Rex, superintendent of education


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:

  1. South Carolina needs an educator in the job.
  2. 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:

  1. 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."
  2. 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."
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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."


15 thoughts on “Jim Rex, superintendent of education

  1. Dave

    “This serpent called vouchers”. Now there is a man approaching a new job with an open mind. He promotes innovation, reform, elevation, new ideas, etc. but spouts the establishment party line on perhaps the most creative, innovative technique.

  2. Nathan

    I didn’t here very many specific plans here. For instance, he wants “innovation”, but what innovations is he for? Are there innovations that he is against? I’ve seen some expensive innovations that accomplish nothing, and some as simple as rewarding kids in different ways that make a huge difference. I’m not sure that “vouchers” or tax credits will work, but at least it is a specific plan. Until I here more than party-line talking points from Rex, I will not be convinced. And I am no fan of Karen Floyd.

  3. Doug Ross

    I went to the Rex site just now. The front page is basically an attack on Karen Floyd being married three times with the quote “Surprise, Christian voters!”
    Ughh… it appears Jim Rex is basically just another politician. When you’re behind, go negative. And he’s the guy who wants to instill a feeling of optimism in the state? Ha! I guess he can’t rely on facts and ideas.
    I love hearing politicians talk about making a plan AFTER they are elected. That basically gives them a free pass for the first year… then they spend the next year talking about how great the plan is… then the third year they’ll start implementing pilot pieces of “the plan” that will allow for the most positive public relations spin. Then year four becomes a run for re-election.
    Rex’s views on PACT merely reflect what most parents who have kids in elementary and middle school have felt for years now. PACT is a waste of time. PACT collects a ton of data and does nothing with it. I’d like to see any information related to the supposed “Accountability” aspect of it. Students who score low are moved along. Teachers who have students who consistently score lower than their peers continue to teach. Principals of schools that consistently show no improvement are not replaced. Superintendents with districts that are not improving get $100K+ salaries and perks galore. If that’s accountability, I wish my company would implement the same policies.

  4. tammy

    Doug–where did you get poll numbers on the FLoyd/Rex race? I’d be curious to see them. Someone told me about a poll yesterday that said Floyd is polling at 51% with voters that have NOT seen her speak and at 29% with voters who have seen BOTH her and Rex speak. (I would like to see that poll too.)
    I wasn’t really surprised. Now it makes sense that she is cancelling debates considering she’s not connecting with voters and the less time she’s in front of them–the better for her.
    Nathan–you said you saw no specific plans here??? Geez. It’s only a blog post…which I’m pretty impressed with what I read…at least Rex is thinking about his plan–should he have it completely prepared today–an entire plan for rehauling SC public education system for Brad Warthen’s blog? I think he did a good job considering the short space…this entry is jam packed with info.
    You mentioned you weren’t sure if voucher would work. There is a lot of info out there on that issue. I hope the Rex camp will gather it, generalize the hell out of it and get it out for the people that won’t go in search of it for themselves. It is a complex issue that will cost a fortune to implement and such. Taxpayers need to understand all aspects.
    Again, great post Brad. Good weekend to all!
    🙂 t

  5. Doug Ross

    I don’t have polling numbers. But if you look at the primary results, Karen Floyd got more 40 thousand more votes than Tommy Moore did for governor. Her opponent, Bob Staton, got 80K himself. I don’t expect there will be many Republican’s jumping to the Rex side.
    And despite what people may think of Sanford, his coattails in a mostly Republican state will give Floyd a built-in cushion that Rex will never be able to overcome.
    Rex: Zero name recognition, Democrat in a Red State, and now going very negative against a female candidate. Three strikes, you’re out.
    Hey, write my name in and I promise I will do more in the first week to improve the education system in this state than any of these guys will do in four years.
    1) PACT – every other year, just English and Math, scrap the rest. Publish results by teacher on the internet.
    2) Push to consolidate all the districts into one per county
    3) Vocational high schools in every county
    4) No one enters high school without scoring BASIC on 8th grade English and Math PACT test
    5) No participation in sports in high school until you have passed the exit exam
    6) Drop the idea of 4 year old classes. It’s basically tax funded day care.

  6. tammy

    hey doug…that sounds pretty dang good…#2 I might crown you king of SC if you could do that in Spartanburg County!!
    🙂 t

  7. Randy Ewart

    I’ve been “yammering” (Lex’s term) about this guy SINCE MAY!!! What Brad posted on this thread is what Rex had on his website back in EARLY May – a broad brushed, hazy plan which I dub “happy talk”.
    Innovation? No specifics there.
    School choice within public schools is a small step, but is very limited.
    He wants to replace the PACT with a test that takes less time, but gives more information. I think he’s also selling pills that allow you to eat more and lose weight.
    He talks about invigorating the teaching profession, but details are limited to programs already in place. He does mention merit pay which is a positive step.
    Equal funding for all schools sounds good, but what steps will he take to make this happen?
    To summarize, he’s going to unleash innovation, get a cheaper and better test, recruit great teachers by promoting the programs already in place, and he’ll get equal funding for schools some how. But he has not a shred of a detailed plan.
    But, atleast he’s not Karen Floyd?

  8. Zeke Stokes

    Mr. Ewart…the campaign is not over yet. Jim will be unveiling lots of details leading up to November 7.

  9. Randy Ewart

    Zeke, I asked you about this in May. You sent me a copy of what was posted on his website.
    I am looking for a reason to vote for him other than he’s a democrat and an educator. I simply have not found anything to hang my hat on.
    I’m a teacher and think our profession is one of the most important because of the effect we have on young people. But we need help with some of the overwhelming problems.
    For example, our black students score far below our white students on the SAT and AP exams. Rex doesn’t address this. As a teacher, I do what I can to help, but clearly it’s a systemic problem and one that the superintendent can address!

  10. Herb Brasher

    Who is the guy (Independent Party candidate) they were interviewing last night? Had a distinct foreign accent, but I couldn’t place it.

  11. Randy Ewart

    Speaking of schools? I think he was the Libertarian candidate. The green candidate is on in a couple weeks. Floyd is on Mon 9th.

  12. MS. WILLIS

    Dear Mr. Rex;
    I’m writing on behalf of my son; who has Attention Deficeit Disorder (ADD). He has been diagnosed with ADD when he was at Easterling; the teachers and i worked together; i never missed a meeting. Now he is in the 5th grade at Marion Intermediate School; from 3rd to 5th grade; he’s been in a self-contained class which has helped him alot. I’m always at all the IEP meeting; finding out the weakness and strongth of his education.
    Next year (AUG 2010); he will be a 6th grader at Johnakin. I used to volunteer at Johnakin when my daughter was going there and i know what to expect when my son goes there next year. At Johnakin; they might put him in a slow class; which he doesn’t need to be in. There’s help for children at school with autism; but not for children with ADHD or ADD. I’m afaraid that Johnakin will let him slip through the cracks. I’m just voicing my opinion because i’m worried that my son will not have a chance at Johnakin….There should be a teacher at Johnakin who specialize in this field of leaning disabilities; this will show the chldren that no matter what they face in life as long as they give it their all; and have the support of home; school; and church. THEY CAN BE SOMEBODY THAT CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD; AS LONG THEY HAVE SOMEONE WHO BELIEVES IN THEM; THEN THEY TOO WILL BELIEVE IN THEMSELVES……………..

Comments are closed.