State leaders maintaining uneasy truce

Grasmick, governor follow different paths to improve schools

`Creative tension'

Some worry friction might take a toll on education reform

May 14, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

When it comes to Maryland educational policy, there are two schools of thought -- Glendening's and Grasmick's.

Throughout Gov. Parris N. Glendening's six years in office, he and state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick have maintained an uneasy relationship -- never friendly and often competitive.

Glendening, for instance, used this year's General Assembly session to push a landmark measure to raise teacher salaries. Grasmick stressed funding for a remedial education plan.

The year before, Glendening fought for smaller reading classes, while Grasmick focused on a new teacher-recruitment effort.

The gulf between the two leaders is becoming apparent again as Grasmick and the state school board grapple with whether to proceed with new high school graduation exams -- a proposal Glendening refused to fully fund this year.

"She is not in his inner circle, nor is he somebody she would look to for guidance," said Christopher T. Cross, the former president of the state school board.

Grasmick and Glendening have each left a mark on Maryland education, but often without the support or encouragement of the other.

Grasmick was a reluctant backer of the governor's pay raise initiative for teachers this year -- an effort to use state money to boost salaries, which are traditionally left to local school systems.

For his part, Glendening was slow to embrace some of the school reforms Grasmick has championed during her nine years as superintendent; her efforts have received praise from around the country.

"We're the drivers of school reform in this state. The governor's office is not," Grasmick said bluntly in an interview last week.

Glendening declined to be interviewed for this article, but a spokesman downplayed differences between the governor and the school superintendent.

"This isn't an issue of Nancy Grasmick vs. the governor. The governor would certainly say that the school superintendent is good for education," said Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill. "It's an issue of how do we get to the goals we all want to reach."

The two are now maneuvering through the politically charged issue of whether to require Maryland high school students to pass rigorous new tests before receiving a diploma.

Grasmick and some state school board members have been critical of Glendening for funding less than half of the board's remediation plan for lagging students. The board is expected to decide this month whether to proceed with the tests as planned in 2005. The tests are the last major piece of the state's sweeping education reform effort that began in 1989.

Under pressure from the board and key legislators, Glendening budgeted $12 million to begin part of the "intervention" program and agreed to increase funding next year.

But at the same time, he sent a tart message to Grasmick and the board: If the state's $3.3 billion investment in public education isn't preparing students for high school graduation exams, how much effect will another $49 million have?

"He wants the school board to reprioritize how we're spending $3 billion -- not tack on another program," Morrill said.

Appointed position

While Grasmick holds a seat in Glendening's Cabinet, she is not Glendening's pick; she is appointed by the 12-member state school board.

Grasmick has held the job since 1991, when the board appointed her at the urging of her political mentor, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer. She has led the state's school-reform effort, overseeing the development of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, which evaluates elementary and middle schools through tests administered to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders.

Many observers say they're certain Glendening would prefer to have his own person in the job, but he has opted not to force the issue, given Grasmick's reputation and the strong support she enjoys from state business groups and key legislators.

"I don't think they'll ever be friends, but I think the governor appreciates her because of her national stature," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who deals with both Glendening and Grasmick regularly. "It makes the governor look good."

Occasional heartburn

Even so, some wonder whether the benefit Glendening receives from Grasmick's reform efforts is worth the occasional heartburn she has no doubt caused.

During the 1994 gubernatorial race, for example, Grasmick gave Glendening, then Prince George's County executive, a grade of "C-minus" on education issues.

A few years later, Grasmick let reporters entertain the notion that she might challenge Glendening for the governor's job.

"I suspect if he had his choice, he'd fire her into outer space tomorrow," said one veteran education advocate.

Grasmick describes her relationship with Glendening as "professional." The two rarely meet to discuss education policy, although the superintendent speaks often with a handful of the governor's top aides.

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