Policies, not politics

Maryland schools superintendent has similar relationship with Ehrlich, Schaefer


One of Maryland's canniest political survivors, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has managed to keep her job for 14 years without hewing to the whim of whatever administration is in Annapolis.

Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who helped bring her to office, says he largely deferred to her agenda of rigorous student testing. Grasmick and former Gov. Parris N. Glendening had competing priorities during his two terms. She generally got what she wanted.

But things looked different as Grasmick unequivocally embraced the Ehrlich-Steele administration's push for merit pay for teachers and other market-style reforms.

"These are critical to building a world-class education system and maintaining that system," Grasmick said when the Governor's Commission on Quality Education released its report last month.

She said later that she would work closely with the administration and state Board of Education to "triage the recommendations" and find which could be implemented most quickly.

Grasmick's endorsement of the Republican administration's agenda comes as speculation has centered on the possibility that she could replace Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s ticket next year if Steele, as expected, runs for the U.S. Senate.

But an examination of the longtime superintendent's record suggests that it is not politics but policy that led her to support the initiatives. The administration has molded its agenda around her positions, she and others say, not the other way around.

"A lot of these ideas are either her ideas or ideas she's been associated with for years," Ehrlich said. "Nancy was instrumental in putting it together. She's going to be instrumental in getting things done."

Grasmick insists that her interest in the governor's education agenda has nothing to do with politics. "I'm doing this because I believe it's in the best interests of the kids in the state," she said.

Asked if she would accept a spot on Ehrlich's ticket, Grasmick didn't give a direct answer. Instead, she ticked off all the times - nine, by her count - that she's been approached by various candidates about running for lieutenant governor over the years.

"I don't think she's interested," Schaefer said. "I asked her about it, and she said, `I'm interested in the children.' And she means it."

One of those nine times came four years ago.

Grasmick, 66, is a lifelong Democrat, but before the last gubernatorial election, her husband, the developer and major political donor Louis J. Grasmick, allied with Ehrlich. She was close enough to Ehrlich that he sounded her out about being his running mate.

She said at the time that she asked him to remove her from his short list, concluding that she was "already in the best possible position to make a difference for all children." The attraction of her post, Grasmick said recently, is that she and the Board of Education have been able to set education policy over the years without considering electoral politics.

If she disagreed with what Ehrlich or any other governor proposed, she said, "I would not support that report. I would not work for the initiatives."

Some of the more controversial elements of the report, such as the suggestion to pay math and science teachers more than those who work in subjects such as English, have been advanced by Grasmick for years.

She has often rankled teacher unions through proposals now taken up by Ehrlich and Steele, such as merit pay, which she has backed since at least 1999. Ehrlich said he thinks much of the conflict between Grasmick and Glendening came about because of that governor's loyal support of teachers unions. Ehrlich has often been at odds with them.

Much of the report relies on the idea of education policy stemming from an activist state department instead of from local school systems, a constant theme of Grasmick's tenure.

"There is so much in here that has been a part of her program in one way or another and part of her agenda for the state of Maryland, so it's not terribly surprising that she supports it," said Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.

And at its heart, the philosophical basis for the report, as expressed by Ehrlich and Steele, owes a direct debt to Grasmick. Her oft-repeated mantra is "No student, by virtue of where he lives, should have to attend a failing school." In explaining the report, both Steele and Ehrlich adopted similar language.

"I would be remiss if I did not address the most disturbing thing I observed," Steele said of his statewide tour researching the report. "It was the unacceptable linking some have made between poverty and intelligence, this notion that if you are in a poor school, a poor area, a poor community, you are unable to perform in a challenging environment. That is a lie."

Ehrlich added: "Venue should not be a predictor of the quality of your education, period."

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