Governor caught in middle of education reform fight

March 09, 1995|By Jean Thompson and Mike Bowler | Jean Thompson and Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writers


In yesterday's story about the State Board of Education, the status of member Robert C. Embry's service was misstated. Mr. Embry's term of office will expire in June; the governor did not reappoint him.

A battle in Annapolis over the powers of an obscure board has forced Gov. Parris N. Glendening to juggle his loyalty to teachers union campaign supporters and his backing of state school officials and the reforms they've put in place.

Yesterday he said he's chosen a compromise that may please neither side in the short run. While saying teachers deserve more input into education decisions, he endorsed the reform efforts of Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the state board of education.

To those outside the education field, the whole dispute over the authority of the Professional Standards and Teacher Education Board may appear to be an insiders' power struggle. Underlying it, however, is a deep well of symbolism about the shifting state of education in Maryland under its new governor.

Earlier, the governor had come down on the side of the teachers union in the standards board debate, an action that fueled rumors that he was dissatisfied with Dr. Grasmick and the board of education. Their reform efforts -- including tougher rules on teacher recertification and an elaborate testing program designed to bring "accountability" to schools -- have been enacted in the past several years over the opposition of the Maryland State Teachers Association (MSTA).

The MSTA was one of Mr. Glendening's chief supporters in last fall's election, which he won narrowly over Ellen R. Sauerbrey. Teachers who volunteered in great numbers for his campaign are counting on him to keep promises to increase their decision-making power at the state Department of Education. However, Mr. Glendening said yesterday, "I agree with most of the things the board [of education] has been doing and that [Dr. Grasmick] has been doing in terms of the quality of education."

"I'm talking about assessment and accountability and certification. But there is one major flaw in the current situation, which is an ongoing antagonism between the teachers and the board and the state Department of Education."

The governor has supported a bill backed by the MSTA that would take power over teacher training and certification away from the state board of education and give it to the standards board. The bill passed the Senate last week, 27-20, and is before the House of Delegates.

Many of the standards board's 25 members are teachers, most of them appointed by education groups.

Mr. Glendening said last night that he has asked Dr. Grasmick and MSTA President Karl Pence to propose a way to give the state board the broad policy-making powers and the teacher standards board more say in case-by-case decisions.

"I think the board is on the right track in terms of policy, but it doesn't make sense to continue with the way things are if the people in the classroom feel the policy is 'against us,' " Mr. Glendening said.

State school officials had argued that hard-won school reforms might founder if the teacher standards and school improvement are guided by separate agencies. Currently, the board of education can veto the standards board's decisions.

Before the first steps toward compromise were taken, the teachers union and the board of education were at loggerheads.

Christopher T. Cross, president of the state board, sent letters to Mr. Glendening and delegates saying that enactment of the standards bill "would seriously undermine five years of progress in school reform." Mr. Cross, who became president of the board last fall, was approaching the State House a couple of weeks ago to testify against the teacher standards bill when he was informed by car phone that administration officials had directed the Education Department's lobbyist to support the legislation.

"It was a jolt," Mr. Cross said. "I thought the best thing to do was to turn around and go home."

Mr. Pence welcomed the governor's support, saying, "It's a very strong way of expressing a belief in the professionalism of the members."

Some have said that teachers on a standards board would be too biased to boot out incompetent peers, but Mr. Pence rejected that criticism. "The values of teachers are such that, if anything, they would be stricter rather than less strict," he said.

The governor's call for compromise in the standards board controversy marks the second time in his young administration that he has asserted his influence in matters regarding the education department.

He recently appointed three new members to the board of education: Adrienne L. Ottaviani, former Allegany County commissioner; Morris C. Jones, of Stevensville, a retired MSTA staff member; and Walter Sondheim Jr., a Baltimore businessman and civic leader who headed the state commission that originally proposed school reforms in 1989.

Mr. Glendening removed Robert C. Embry Jr., the Abell Foundation head who has worked hand-in-hand with Dr. Grasmick in the state school reform effort.

The 12-member state board appoints the state superintendent. Dr. Grasmick has said she has no written contract, but her term expires in 16 months. The superintendent said she is not planning to resign and met recently with the governor to improve communication. "I think this is important work, and I want to continue to contribute and to provide leadership and forge the necessary relationships to make this work."

Mr. Cross said he saw "zero indications" that Mr. Glendening is attempting to dump the state school superintendent. "There are lots of rumors around," he said, "but nothing that really counts. I think a lot of this has to do with a new administration establishing itself and clearing out the underbrush in terms of how things will work."

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