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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Could this be the start of a beautiful relationship?

MARK SANFORD didn't find the $200 million in savings he was looking for when he met last week with state education officials to talk about a budget shortfall he expects to have to deal with soon. But he might have found something far more important: a partner who can work with him to actually improve our schools.

The first glimmer appeared when Education Superintendent Jim Rex mentioned a mentor program he hopes will draw new teachers to poor schools. Why couldn't we accomplish the same thing by giving those $7,500 bonuses for National Board certification only to teachers in critical need subjects or schools, the governor asked?

"I wouldn't disagree with that," Dr. Rex replied.

Gov. Sanford: "But would you propose it?"

"I think we have an obligation to the teachers who are already in the program. But new teachers — I would not disagree."

"But would you propose it?"

Dr. Rex: "Yes. I think I could."

This was the first direct public exchange between the men who personify the opposing sides of the voucher debate that has paralyzed our state. And while many of us had seen the potential for a partnership across a broad swath of issues, the governor seemed a bit surprised at the superintendent's response, as if he believed all that partisan, "you're on my team or not" nonsense that permeates our political discourse.

Then an amazing thing happened. When he moved on to school district consolidation, which the superintendent likewise endorsed — although with a less heavy-handed approach of offering incentives and removing disincentives and accepting functional but not political consolidation if necessary — Gov. Sanford started sounding like someone who understands coalition- and consensus-building.

"What is important is that we have proponents," he said. "You've got a lot more levers to pull (among educators).... I need your help."

Dr. Rex: "You'll have my help. I might disagree on the strategy.... I feel at least the same amount of urgency as you do."

There were disagreements during the two-hour meeting, to be sure — over privatizing the bus system, over whether to make 4K available to poor kids statewide or just in the districts that sued the state, over Dr. Rex's plan to drop social studies from the PACT.

But most of the back-and-forth followed that same pattern: The governor throws out what he considers a provocative idea, an idea the Legislature has ignored or rejected, and the superintendent reacts warmly, occasionally even enthusiastically.

Charter schools? "I hope y'all know this — I'm a big supporter of public charter schools.... So you'll see recommendations (in an upcoming school funding proposal) for funding and facilities of charter schools."

Funding the child rather than the school? Too early to spell out a plan, what with his school funding task force a few weeks away from releasing that report, but "we know certain elements" will be addressed, among them having funding follow the child from school to school and a simpler, more transparent funding system.

Impact fees so newcomers pay to build the new schools rather than longtime residents who don't want the new residents to begin with? "Well, I'm tempted to give you a standing ovation."

When Dr. Rex mentioned his concern about schools getting too large and his desire to encourage smaller schools, Gov. Sanford chimed in: "I completely agree with you."

The neighborhood school discussion illustrated why Gov. Sanford needs Dr. Rex's help. "Our frustration — we put that idea out there and nothing happened," he said. Why, we even had a press conference, the governor said to the man who is pushing his own education agenda by (so far) holding more than a dozen town hall meetings across the state, meeting one-on-one with dozens of legislators (many in their districts), speaking weekly to multiple civic clubs, churches and conferences and holding more than 100 meetings with education groups, who support him but have traditionally opposed many of the reforms he's pushing.

If Dr. Rex was going out of his way to point out areas of agreement, Gov. Sanford was going out of his way to avoid areas of disagreement. He even tried to brush aside the elephant in the room, saying they could agree to disagree on private school choice. But his staff pressed the issue, with chief of staff Tom Davis asking about such "middle-ground" ideas as vouchers for special needs kids or means-tested vouchers.

When Dr. Rex explained that his main concern is that any school that receives tax dollars should be held to the same accountability standards as public schools and required to admit all applicants, just like public schools, the governor saw an opening: "If those two requirements were met, would you agree?"

"I'd be willing to talk about it," the superintendent said. That was his clearest hedge, but rather than point that out, the governor's most aggressive voucher advocate, Scott English, immediately changed the subject. The main issue with choice, he said, isn't about private schools; it's about public schools. Then the governor made a point of saying he had vetoed Dr. Rex's public school choice not over the idea but over "the mechanics."

If Dr. Rex's voucher answer sounded cagey, the governor's veto explanation sounded disingenuous. But the superintendent let that pass. "Let's agree on where there's common ground, and push forward on it," he said.

"You've got our commitment to work with you on that," Gov. Sanford said.

There are lots of details to be worked out and promises to be followed through on before the partnership materializes. But this exchange is a positive start, which left both sides optimistic. As Mr. English observed to me afterwards, there's no way the Legislature could reject it if these two stood up together and proposed a district consolidation plan. Or, I would add, pretty much any plan.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at or at (803) 771-8571.

© 2007 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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