Sanford and Rex column

Sanford, Rex should work together
on common reform goals

“I think there is a lot of common ground, and hopefully we’ll find it.”
    — Jim Rex,
    superintendent of education,
    on reform ideas that both he
    and Gov. Mark Sanford support

Gov. Mark Sanford is the most prominent advocate of converting South Carolina’s separately elected constitutional offices into Cabinet posts. He is also probably the biggest political impediment to such essential reform.
    One day after Sen. Glenn McConnell delivered
on his promise to get constitutional officers legislation out of committee, a Democratic senator said what so many have said before: He sees the merit in consolidating the executive branch, but the idea of giving the governor power to appoint the superintendent of education really gives him heartburn.
    And no wonder. This governor showed virtually no interest in our schools in his first term, beyond leading an all-out campaign to undermine taxpayer confidence in the very idea of public education, and pay parents to desert it.
    But that was then. Now, with a new term, and a new superintendent, there’s an opportunity for progress — if the governor (and the superintendent of education, but I’m less worried about him) will seize it.
    Based on what Mr. Sanford has said over the past four years, and what Jim Rex said during the 2006 campaign, there are significant reform ideas that both of them favor.
    If they are serious about these ideas, they should get behind them with all their might:

  • Merit pay for teachers. Mr. Rex has told teachers they’d better get used to the idea of being paid according to their performance, rather than just by the old standards of degrees and longevity. The governor has proposed that.
  • More educational “choice.” Mr. Rex, who has the support of the very forces who have most resisted the governor’s “choice” advocacy (which has unfortunately focused primarily on promoting private schools), wants parents to be able to choose the public schools their children attend.
  • Comprehensive tax reform. This would help beyond education, but it is essential to fixing the inequitable way schools are funded across the state.
  • School district consolidation. The governor would reduce the state’s wasteful, duplicative archipelago of 85 districts to one per county. Mr. Rex wouldn’t go that far — he suspects that some counties, such as Horry, are too big for a single administration — but he sees the need for some consolidation of districts, and certainly sharing services across district lines. There seems room for an alliance between them on at least the concept.

    The concept is simple common sense. Some of the worst schools in the state are in some of the tiniest, least rationally conceived, districts. There is a crying need for consolidation, and a fierce resistance that has kept the Legislature deaf to it.
    Ditto with the other ideas, which have been mightily resisted by what detractors call the “education establishment” — a constituency that lawmakers have been loathe to offend.
    But if both of these statewide elected officials really poured their considerable political capital — the governor was re-elected by the greatest margin in 16 years, and Mr. Rex has the almost total support of the most critical constituencies — into these fundamental reforms, our state could be transformed.
    That would, incidentally, also advance the idea of putting the state Department of Education — which presides over nearly half of state spending — where it should be, under the authority of future governors. Ironically, Mr. Rex actually opposes that. But if education advocates could for once see this governor publicly backing serious proposals for positive change, and see Mr. Rex behind those same ideas, they could be reassured that maybe the governor’s office isn’t an inherently destructive force.
    Can it happen? I don’t know. The governor has expended little energy on pushing these ideas in the past. For that matter, we’ve yet to confirm whether Mr. Rex is more than talk — and senior Sanford adviser Tom Davis has expressed doubts that the superintendent will be able to stand firm in the face of opposition within his own party.
    But so far Mr. Rex has been the guy pushing. He initiated a meeting with the governor several weeks ago. He says both “talked candidly about the belief that we had a lot of common ground.”
    “Yeah,” said the governor when I asked him about it. “We’ve had a couple of visits, and they’ve been pleasant, and um, I think productive. I like his style; he seems to be very matter of fact. Ummm. So, yeah.”
    When the governor went no further, Mr. Davis jumped in to say there was “tremendous opportunity” to work together on these issues. But the governor’s staff still seems to wonder how far Mr. Rex would go with them.
    If I were Mr. Rex, I’d be wondering to what degree the governor’s commitment exceeds lip service. But there’s one way for everyone to be sure: Come out together on these issues in a huge, public way, each binding the other with his unmistakable commitment.
    The governor was also friendly, in a noncommittal way, with Inez Tenenbaum at the start of his first term. But all that evaporated when he and well-funded out-of-state allies started attacking public schools outright in pushing his tax credit idea. “It was just all-out war after that,” Mrs. Tenenbaum recalls.
    If both the governor and the new superintendent would seize the chance to have a much more positive relationship than that, it would be good for Mark Sanford, good for Jim Rex, and very good for South Carolina.

26 thoughts on “Sanford and Rex column

  1. chrisw

    It is clear that the State has marked its position early…and clearly it is: the failure of the education establishment to make significant changes will be the result of the Gov…and not the Sup of Ed…
    Internally, I read that as “tune out the education issues, as they will be exactly the same when I focus on them in again…in 2010.

  2. Brad Warthen

    No, here’s my point: I want to see the governor grab this and go with it, and I’m trying to push that as hard as I can. I’m excited about the possibility, and I’m hoping the governor will see it and get enthusiastic too.
    That’s because both of these guys would have to be pushing on these things for them to have any chance of getting past the legislature.
    This is an opportunity like what Lamar Alexander created in Tennessee in the early 80s. He reached out to Democratic House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter and the TEA, and manage to push through his own form of merit pay in spite of the odds. (If I recall correctly, Ned brought along the TEA, just as Rex could bring the SCEA.)
    The governor IS promising a big push on government restructuring — something I’ve waited for him to do for four years, so that sounds great. If he would simultaneously push on these other things — he could let Rex do most of the heavy lifting, as long as he got out there visibly as strongly supporting it — that would in turn bolster his position on restructuring. Win-win.

  3. Reality

    Brad, The funny part about restructering is that the former financial advisor, Governor Sanford, fails to understand that South Carolina wants a diversified democracy without all its’ eggs in one basket. During Governor Campbell’s tenure the restructering did away with the election of the Insurance Commissioner and guess what happened? During Governor Beasleys administration insurance rate advantages were given to one of his prime contributors-an insurance company. I urge you to review the articles of Jesse Washington from Associated Press in the 98 Gubernatorial election. I think Mr. Washington proved that insurance rates were being fixed for campaign contributions.
    Now, I will gladly show where many “other” states have the same problem. In fact, you should do your homework. For instance there was a KY Adjutant General appointed but he got caught shaking down officers for the Governor’s reelection campaign and hence sentenced to 18 months in Federal preison.
    We, have a long standing tradition of government “by the people” so, given Sanford’s dismal first term why should we allow him to screw up more stuff? Where are the jobs? Is the Commerce Department not within his dominion?
    Is it any wonder that us North Carolinians laugh at you all so much?

  4. Brad Warthen

    I don’t know what you find funny. We’re just trying to have the same kind of government you and the rest of the states have, and you seem to be saying we shouldn’t. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
    Maybe you should check YOUR facts. Our last elected agriculture commissioner — a completely unqualified hack who only gained office because he had an “R” after his name — was nabbed by the feds for taking money from cockfighters.
    Does that prove the position should not be elective? No, any more that your ridiculous example from Kentucky argues to the contrary. (I’ll never understand why people seize on such non-sequitur scandals to argue unrelated positions.) The fact that he was elected without any examination of his credentials whatsoever — which is what you get with down-ballot offices, because voters generally don’t have a clue who those people are — is what argues against electing the position. Think about it — agriculture commissioner? How routine does a functionary get? SOMEbody needs to be taking time to look at a resume before hiring something like that — something you can’t rely on 4 million people to do when they’re not being paid to do so.
    So tell me — did you choose the pseudonym “Reality” just to give us South Carolinians something to laugh at?

  5. Brad Warthen

    Sorry about that, folks. I’ve sort of reached a limit in my patience. I don’t think I can continue to show respect for anyone who a) writes comments that consist of nothing but self-contradictory nonsense; and b) doesn’t have the guts to sign his own name to it.

  6. Dave

    Brad, hang in there and let the cards play out. I think you are frustrated because of what you want to happen now, but can only report on it. Let those who were elected cast their lots.

  7. Paul DeMarco

    I’m cautiously optimistic about the Sanford-Rex duet. I hope that Sanford will begin pondering his legacy and will try to accomplish something in his second term.
    I’m skeptical about merit pay for teachers. It would have to be tied to some measurable student improvement during the year. This would certainly favor teachers in affluent districts since those students are better prepared and easier to teach.
    I would favor adjusting teacher pay or incentives to provide significant reward simply for teaching in underserved schools so that we can attract and retain good teachers. We could then make their “poverty bonus” contingent on student improvement.
    But merit pay without significant poverty weighting will simply widen the existing gap between rich and poor. Good teachers will have even more reason to avoid poor districts since their pay will be lower and there will be less chance to earn merit pay.

  8. Ready to Hurl

    Reality seems to have a broad background and knowledge of the issues.
    Don’t let Brad’s little snit over pseudonyms bother you.
    Some of us welcome Reality.

  9. Mark Whittington

    All of this is tantamount to “separate but equal”. I’ve noticed that the rest of the white folks where my son attends middle school have made the “choice” to either put their children into either single gender or magnet programs, or they have chosen to remove their children from the public school system altogether. I know this because my kid is practically the only white kid left in all of his classes.
    I’ve noticed that Zesto’s (Zesto’s has relocated) has recently closed on Decker Blvd., further leading to the red lining and the degradation of the area. I’ve watched over the years as perfectly solvent businesses have moved as the area has become more black and brown.
    No plan is going to work that does not address class and race. All South Carolina classrooms need to be proportionally represented by the population. All classrooms should be comprised of about 70% white students and 30% black students (and a growing number of Hispanic students should also be proportionally represented). The economic status of the students’ parents should also be proportionally represented, so private schools need to be abolished. Also, all schools need to be equally funded. It’s the only way.

  10. Doug

    Pretty cheap tactic you used in the Sanford quote in your piece by including the “um’s” and “yeah’s”… coming from someone who can’t produce 20 seconds of video without a barrage of of ums, uhs, ahs, etc. it’s pretty ironic.
    Can’t decide if you were trying to make Sanford look dumb or whether your choice to print the quote that way was just a passive aggresive sign of jealousy. It must be painful to know that Mark Sanford doesn’t care one iota what you think about SC government.
    Before putting Rex up for sainthood, can you explain what he was doing for the many months of his campaigns in terms of understanding the issues related to education in SC? How come it was only AFTER he was elected that he felt it was time to come up with a committee to come up with a plan?
    If Rex doesn’t propose any substansial change in SC education by the start of the next school year, then he is as big a phony as Inez was. It’s all a game — win, spin, and run agin’.

  11. Brad Warthen

    Paul, care to take that one?
    Personally, I haven’t heard anything from Rex, with regard to issues, that he didn’t say during the campaign. He ran on these things.
    For more on that, follow the link above in my column — right there at my first reference to Rex in the main text of the column. It takes you to my notes, posted here at the time, from our endorsement interview with him Sept. 27.

  12. Paul DeMarco

    I doubt Rex could have gathered such a diverse and accomplished group prior to the election simply on the promise that he would be the Superintendent. But I think it telling that no one he asked refused to serve on his transition team.
    Rex’s campaign promise was to try to enact comprehensive reform rather than tinkering at the edges. That will take time and I think he is planning on spending the first year in office developing and selling a plan to the people and then to the Legislature.
    There is no quick fix here. Let’s give him some time to get his bearings.

  13. Doug

    There isn’t a single thing Rex could do in the nine months between his victory and the next school year?
    On his campaign web page, he mentions two issues first: school crime and discipline; he claimed to have a five point plan to deal with discipline. Let’s see it now… or should we wait a year for more discipline problems to affect the kids who want to be there?
    And on testing, his site says: “However, when it comes to testing, I believe we are testing our children too much. I believe it is time for us to reexamine the Accountability Act of 1998 and change the law. As Superintendent, I will work with educators, the General Assembly, the business community, and the Governor to reduce accountability testing to the minimum necessary to allow us to track progress and draw comparisons.”
    So how come he wasn’t working on that from day one?
    Leaders do things. Bureacrats form committees.

  14. Reality

    Hey Brad,
    Did I hit a nerve? Yes, I just returned from AL and they are even laughing at you South Carolinians. You ever see the Southern Auto Corridor? Considering I have thoroughly reviewed Governor Sanford’s resume in private business(not impressive in private sector) and your dismal at best resume I can say I doubt either one of you are qualified for the positions you hold. I think George magazine and others have adequately described the Governors inability to build a consensus and your sales record at the helm simply reinforces your less than marginal performance.
    Further, the picture of you looks like you are still role playing as Jerry Garcia.
    By the way, what is you beef with pseudonyms as they were the foundation of your industry and have been the voice of the oppressed for centuries? News Nazi might be a new term in vocabulary, you just want your “State” sponsored voice heard.

  15. Ready to Hurl

    In recognition of Brad’s fixation on pseudonyms I’ll start signing my posts.
    Benjamin Franklin

  16. Herb Brasher

    Doug, you seem to like autocratic leaders. In my profession, they are very hard to swallow. Leadership consists, not of making major decisions on one’s own, and then coercing everyone to do as they’re told, but in building consensus, and having people take ownership of a plan. In order to do that, every common-sense approach requires that a new leader has to find out what is really going on. She/he won’t win anybody if they don’t listen first. Usually they tell you to spend several months, even a year, just listening to the grass roots.
    It’s in all the literature on leadership, Stephen Covey, Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, Kouzes, Posner, Adizes–they are all going to say the same thing. The difference would be if you are starting up a new company, and then you need a hard-nosed pioneer to get it going and keep its focus, but if you let it go that way too long, and members don’t take ownership (i.e., the pioneer becomes an autocrat), then you lose.
    But this isn’t a new company. Rex has to listen first, and then shoot–eventually.

  17. Mary Rosh

    Herb, I think that Doug has a legitimate beef. Those are important issues, and don’t involve any kind of massive restructuring. Discipline may be kind of a tough nut to crack, but he’s not going to get any argument against doing SOMETHING. Why didn’t he have a plan ready to go? Put it up and let people say what they thought. Wouldn’t any kind of reasonable plan get broad consensus pretty easily? And then if he needed resources and had trouble getting them he could say, you SAID the plan was a good plan, why are you now balking?
    And the testing issue is maybe even easier. There is considerable concern all over the country about too much reliance on testing. Wouldn’t he be able to simply find a pretty complete alternative proposal, say here are the problems with too much testing, here are some alternatives people have proposed, here are the results of stuff people have tried, I want to do this.
    Those are relatively simple issues that I think are within the purview of a superintendent. I don’t see a need for a big study group to figure out an approach. Just put forward an approach and let people take shots at it. If there are not shots taken, go ahead with it; if people take shots, evaluate their concerns and make adaptations as necessary, and then push to do whatever you have figured out to do.
    It’s major overhauls that require study groups and white papers, and that’s one reason I think going in with an aim to overhaul the whole system is not a good approach. Not because an overhaul is an outlandish idea, but because it can wind up getting bogged down. If you want to get from A to Z, I think you should work on getting to B. Then when you’re at B, work on getting to C. If your aim is to get from A to Z in one step, it’s easy to have a lot of trouble figuring out how to start, and therefore not start.

  18. tim meacham

    if anyone thinks mark sanford’s second term is anything more than a distraction for him, or might i say, jenny’s future ambitions they are fooling themselves. keep it real’s all about him.

  19. Mary Rosh

    tim, what ambitions? If you say he has ambitions, I believe you, but I doubt they will be realized. If Sanford has any ambitions for any kind of national prominence, he should keep the following story in mind:
    Themistocles was once upbraided by a politician from the small city state of Larissa. “A great deal of your fame, Themistocles,” he sneered, “arises from the fortunate accident of your Athenian birth. Had you been born in Larissa, you would not have become so great.” “Nor you,” Themistocles replied, “had you been born in Athens.”

  20. Ready to Hurl

    Great story, Mary.
    Tragically for the nation, we have the George W. Bush life story as a warning of how wealth and connections can overcome intellectual and personal shortcomings.
    Sanford’s probably a freaking genius compared to Dubya. On the positive side for the nation, Sanford apparently isn’t as good at personal politicking AND is encumbered by blind ideology.
    Chester A. Arthur

  21. Herb Brasher

    Interesting thoughts, Mary. But I would have thought that, in order to know where B and C are, Rex would have to at least have a vague idea of the direction of Z, and do some team building first.
    However, that may be overusing an illustration in order to fog up reality–I’m sure there’s a name for that fallacy, but I don’t what it is off-hand. Anyway, we will find out, one way or the other, if he is going to get to B and C, and any further than that.

  22. Mary Rosh

    Herb, I think my illustration wasn’t that great, and fuzzed up the point I was trying to make. Doug says that Rex talked about 2 specific issues – discipline and testing. My point relating to that was, those are issues that can be approached without a big overarching vision, and it ought to be possible to get a lot of support for reasonable plans to address those issues. Those are things that should be easier and quicker to implement than a grand overhaul, and will provide immediate benefits. Who cares if the first steps you take don’t achieve everything you want to achieve; implement the improvements you can and work from your new position.
    Maybe an example that illustrates my point better is, if you’re at A, and you aren’t happy with it, don’t worry about getting to Z, or going in the direction of Z, even. If B is an improvement over A, get to B. Then look at where you are and where you can go from B. If C is an improvement over B, go to C. And so on. You should get to Z eventually. You can think about getting to Z in parallel, and work at getting to Z, but thinking about getting to Z should not crowd out getting to B, C, D, and so on.

  23. Paul DeMarco

    Be still my heart…Is Mary a changed woman? Civilized dialogue, admission of human frailty (“Herb, I think my illustration wasn’t that great”), sly anecdotes of ancient Greece…could we be witnessing a born-again blogger? I hope so; I’m certainly ready to hear more stories about Themistocles.
    To the point…Certainly I’m not advocating that Rex do nothing in his first year. Reducing the number and frequency of benchmark testing would be a relatively simple and rapid change he could make to signal his thirst for reform.
    I would also like to see him float the idea that SC go to a Vermont style system in which every child in the state receives essentially the same amount of money to support his education. That would indicate that he’s serious about major and essential reform of our system.
    I’m just suggesting that we all have some patience. As Mary surely knows, Rome wasn’t built in a day…segue to Mary’s next installment of “Lives of the Ancient Greeks/Romans.”

  24. Doug

    Your example of Rex cutting back on testing is exactly what I’m looking for. If he announces a change to take effect for the 2007-2008 school year, I will believe that he is committed to getting things done.
    I would expect such an announcement would have to come by about May 1 in order for teachers to prepare for next year… Personally, I say drop the science and social studies tests altogether as well as the writing prompt in PACT. Encourage teachers to put more emphasis on daily writing in the classroom, but don’t test it. Let our trained professional teachers do their jobs.b

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