Townsend rallying support of teachers

Author of reform plan backs her at union event

October 20, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend sought to energize support yesterday from one of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's most loyal boosters from organized labor, carrying with her the endorsement of an architect of Maryland's landmark public school funding-reform initiative.

Speaking at the annual convention of the Maryland State Teachers Association, the lieutenant governor portrayed herself as having been a strong backer of public schools and of the union's agenda over the past eight years.

"I believe in you," she told the crowd of more than 1,500 teachers in the Ocean City Convention Center. "I believe that education is very much at the top of my agenda."

Former Prince George's County school board Chairman Alvin C. Thornton -- head of the two-year commission that called for significant increases in state spending on public schools -- endorsed Townsend before her speech, saying she is the best choice to ensure the plan becomes reality.

"We must have a leader with a proven, unquestioned commitment to public education," Thornton said. "We have put in too much time, we have put in too much energy."

The plan created by the Thornton Commission and approved this year by the General Assembly calls for state spending on public schools to increase by $1.3 billion over six years, with the goal of reducing inequities between the state's affluent and less well-off jurisdictions.

Townsend's opponent, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., also strongly supports the commission's recommendations, and he has called for legalizing slot machines as a way to help pay for them. Townsend opposes slot machines and has not specified where she would find funding, other than to say she would ensure it would be part of her future budgets.

"Does Dr. Thornton's endorsement include how the lieutenant governor is going to pay for it? Because the entire state is waiting to hear her plan," said Ehrlich spokesman Shareese N. DeLeaver. "Right now, bloated hopes and dreams will not pay for the Thornton Commission recommendations."

In an interview, Thornton said he is confident that if she is elected, Townsend will be able to find new sources of state money to fund the plan.

"What she's going to do is lead the people of Maryland in a discussion of the right ways to find new money," Thornton said. "Everything is on the table."

Thornton indicated he is not quite as opposed to legalizing slot machines as Townsend, but said it would not be his preferred course. "It would be my last option," he said.

With Maryland's public schools closed on Election Day, Townsend asked MSTA members to spend their day off working at poll sites talking with voters about why they support her bid for governor.

"When you say that [you support me], you have credibility," Townsend told the cheering teachers. "Nobody has more credibility in communities than teachers."

The 58,000-member union has been one of the biggest supporters of the Glendening-Townsend administration and has won significant legislative victories with the governor's backing -- including 10 percent pay raises over two years and a significant expansion of its collective-bargaining rights.

The MSTA endorsed Townsend early in the campaign, and last month it issued a report card in which it gave the lieutenant governor all A's and Ehrlich all F's. It's also committed to spend at least $50,000 on a radio advertising campaign in the Washington suburbs attacking Ehrlich's education record and endorsing Townsend.

As has become her routine when discussing education, Townsend reminded teachers of several of Ehrlich's congressional votes, including his support of a measure to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education. Ehrlich and other Republicans said they wanted to send that money directly into classrooms.

Townsend also pointed to statements made by Ehrlich on Friday before the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which she said illustrated his lack of support for education.

"He said that `I'm really proud that I've taken on the teachers,'" Townsend said.

But the issue in which Ehrlich said he has taken on teachers involves charter schools -- public schools operated by private groups with public funding that are freed from many of the constraints of traditional public schools. Townsend has said she also supports charter schools.

Ehrlich's only other mention of teachers involved his criticism of how the agendas of unions often differ from those of business groups -- and that the unions are paying for ad campaigns attacking the GOP. "Their campaign, they attack me through surrogates ... including the Maryland State Teachers Association, the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, the League of Conservation Voters, people who do not have your best interests at heart," Ehrlich told the chamber. "Trust me. Check their agendas."

Townsend told the teachers union that she believes its agenda is in line with Maryland's large companies'.

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