Glendening Brings the Insiders On Board for School Reform

June 18, 1995|By JEAN THOMPSON

As he honed his agenda for Maryland schools this past week, Gov. Parris N. Glendening surrounded himself with a constellation of education insiders.

When the time came in the glare of TV lights to thank these advisers, he reserved special mention for two. It was a symbolic moment, so fleeting that it would be easily overlooked in the flurry of policy and funding announcements.

"During these months . . . ," he said, "we smoothed out the antagonisms between the State Board and the teachers' representatives, and I am pleased at the developing working relationship between Nancy and Karl."

Karl Pence, president of the 46,000-strong Maryland State Teachers Association, the bargaining agent for teachers in all school districts except Baltimore City, had jetted back to Maryland in the middle of a family vacation for this moment. His place at the podium following State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick during Thursday's event was a sign of MSTA's new day in the spotlight.

It signals a new day for the state's teachers, who can now position themselves to be seen as leaders rather than targets of school reform.

For teachers, the link to the State House provides validation, recognition of their role in improving the quality of education and children's lives, classroom by classroom. For them, access also means power -- to influence work conditions in public education, obtain the support needed to do better by Maryland's children.

For the governor, a former college professor whose campaign was won with the help of teacher volunteers, MSTA members are front-line troops as well as agents of change. Mr. Glendening has delivered on his campaign promise to ensure teachers a voice in policy-making that affects teachers' careers. This is so different from what came before that its full implications have yet to be explored by either side.

During William Donald Schaefer's years as governor, the MSTA was treated as an outsider -- "a fall guy at worst, a nonentity at best," Mr. Pence says.

There were well-publicized clashes between the union and Mr. Schaefer's Department of Education when the state's long-range plans for school reform introduced to Marylanders a whole new way of delivering and testing school and school system quality.

Teachers feared they would be blamed for public education's failures under this plan, called the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, which continues today after five years. And in fact, when the schools cited as among the state's lowest performers were ordered to restructure, teachers felt the brunt of the shake-ups and lost long-held jobs in transfers.

Not all sweetness, light

Despite the involvement of many thousands of teachers in developing and fine-tuning the reform plan, tensions continued. They flared most recently this winter, when the union renewed a long-futile fight to end the state school board's responsibility for teacher standards and certification. The union wanted an independent standards board made up primarily of teachers to take on those duties. By April, when state legislators let the matter die in committee at the end of the session, Mr. Glendening had sided with the teachers and called on all parties to work together. During the past two months he has led both sides to the table to tailor school reform efforts to his agenda. Now when he describes his advisers on education policy, he often talks of a triumvirate: Dr. Grasmick and the state school board -- gatekeeper of Maryland's closely watched school reform programs -- and the teachers.

"The sad thing was to see the two of them, with their like notions, wasting any energy with this kind of turf dance," Mr. Glendening said during an interview last week. Now, "You'll see a better level of consensus building and communication than we've seen in a long time. I see that as being as important as the specific policies we develop."

To call the warming of their relationships a truce would be overreaching: The constituencies they represent have needs different enough that they must reserve the right to disagree -- contentiously, if necessary.

Mr. Glendening takes pleasure in relating that at one planning meeting, he spied Dr. Grasmick in close discussions with Mr. Pence, resting a hand collegially on his shoulder.

"I think there was a public agenda and a private agenda. We were closer together than the rhetoric would make it seem," said Christopher Cross, president of the state school board, which is also at the table.

"The real unspoken contract is [that Mr. Glendening] expects us to work cooperatively and . . . to come into an engagement that was not based on 'You're bad, I'm good,' " Mr. Pence said last week. "Talk about risk taking -- it's hard for any union to embrace any cooperative and collaborative effort with management. There's a much higher standard of performance put on me."

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