Politics & Government

Nominee for No. 2 education job skirts controversy that hounded DeVos

Mick Zais speaks to an Associated Press reporter in Columbia, S.C. He is the nominee for deputy education secretary.
Mick Zais speaks to an Associated Press reporter in Columbia, S.C. He is the nominee for deputy education secretary. AP

Mick Zais is on his way to becoming deputy education secretary. And despite having a very similar record as the department’s first-in-command, Betsy DeVos, his nomination so far is prompting little to none of the same public outrage.

The two Republican senators who opposed DeVos don’t seem concerned about him. Democratic-leaning groups are mobilizing, but concede their efforts are, so far, not sparking much ire from the grassroots.

That doesn’t mean Zais is without his critics on Capitol Hill. Like DeVos, the former South Carolina education superintendent is a strong advocate of “school choice,” which Democrats fear is a euphemism for favoring private, parochial and charter schools at the expense of adequately supporting public education. He isn’t likely to get any Democratic support.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, will oppose Zais when the committee votes to advance his nomination to the Senate floor.

Spokespeople for most other committee Democrats told McClatchy their bosses also either plan to vote against Zais or have “serious concerns” about his nomination.

Ricki Eshman, press secretary for Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said the senator was wary of Zais’ “support for Secretary DeVos’ agenda of diverting taxpayer dollars to private, religious and for-profit schools without accountability requirements.”

“Wisconsin has a long tradition of supporting public education, including early childhood education, and I don’t believe he will help advance that tradition,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who plans to vote against Zais, said in a statement.

Zais’ tenure as state education superintendent from 2011 to 2015, was marred by controversy. He elicited an outcry — and threats of a lawsuit — from the State Board of Education for refusing to apply for various federal public education grant programs.

“More federal money for education will not solve our problems,” Zais said when announcing South Carolina would decline to compete for some of the $200 million offered to states as part of President Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative.

Zais also refused to accept $144 million in federal cash to help retain public school teachers in the state. He rejected compliance with the Common Core curriculum, not an unusual position for a Republican: Many in the party have longstanding issues with the national education standard.

In addition, Zais reportedly said in the past he wasn’t sure of the value of teaching children under five years old. Those comments, which Zais said at his Nov. 15 Senate confirmation hearing he didn’t recall making, prompted a letter of concern to HELP Committee leadership signed by eight organizations including the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the National Education Association, Save the Children Action Network and left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Still, with the Republican-dominated committee expected to vote to bring Zais’ nomination to the Senate floor as early as next week, it’s notable that Democrats aren’t trying to ignite more outrage. Nor are grassroots activists renewing the same sort of fierce battle they waged against DeVos that almost ruined her prospects.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a HELP Committee Republican who faced backlash both from constituents and national groups for his strong support of DeVos, agreed things were “very quiet” surrounding Zais, both from supporters and detractors. He suggested Zais might be more “low key” than DeVos in touting something as controversial as school choice.

Scott also mentioned Zais’s background as a brigadier general as lending increased credibility. Zais, who was president of private Newberry College from 2000 to 2010, also has considerably more experience in the education sector than DeVos, who prior to being secretary had only been an education activist and philanthropist.

Scott did not show up to Zais’ hearing, which coincided with final negotiations on the Senate Republican tax plan. Scott was heavily involved in crafting that plan. HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., was the only Republican to attend.

The lack of a coordinated public relations campaign against Zais could be helping him. When Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she could not support DeVos for education secretary in February, she cited DeVos’ inability to promise to prioritize public school funding over private school vouchers. Murkowski also cited the thousands of calls to her office as influencing her decision.

With DeVos, those calls began prior to the HELP Committee vote to advance the nomination. On Thursday, Murkowski told McClatchy she would support Zais.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the only other Republican who voted against DeVos on the floor, said she was not familiar enough with Zais’ nomination to comment at this time.

Clare McCann, who serves as deputy director for federal policy at the Higher Education Initiative housed at New America — a Washington-based, center-left think tank — said it wasn’t surprising that Zais’ nomination wasn’t attracting the same attention as DeVos, as “it’s pretty common for the heads of agencies to get a lot more public scrutiny and generally a lot more media attention.”

McCann also conceded that many viewed Zais’ nomination as a “foregone conclusion,” where the votes will break along party lines with Republicans unlikely to unify in strong enough numbers to put his confirmation in jeopardy, if there are any GOP holdouts at all.

Catherine Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress, said tax reform, year-end spending fights and the rash of sexual harassment allegations on Capitol Hill were making it difficult for anyone to focus on anything else. Congress is hoping to wrap up its year December 22.

Brown added that her group and others have been mobilizing against the Zais nomination, urging letters to lawmakers to op-eds in national publications and a coordinated Twitter campaign the day of his confirmation hearing to raise awareness.

As Zais’ nomination inches towards a final confirmation vote, the noise could get louder. Powerful lobbyists for educators could continue to pressure lawmakers in both parties. The Charleston, S.C., chapter of Indivisible, the national grassroots group opposing the Donald Trump agenda, has begun making calls to alert lawmakers about Zais.

“Mick Zais was part of the problem here in SC and never part of any solution,” said Indivisible Charleston spokeswoman Vanessa Moody-Laird in an email. “He is only going to bring that same instability to manage anything effectively to the National Department of Education.”

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain