Schoolyard Brawl

City and state leaders stand on opposing sides of the debate over how to improve public education in Baltimore

Grasmick mingles politics, accountability


Nancy S. Grasmick took perhaps the greatest gamble of her 15-year career as Maryland's schools chief by being the first state superintendent in the nation to seek a takeover under federal law.

Critics immediately called her move political, an election-year shot designed to help her ally the governor keep his job. And within two days, she lost her first round in Annapolis when the General Assembly approved a one-year moratorium putting her bold attempt to seize control of 11 Baltimore schools on indefinite hold.

While the impetus for Grasmick's audacious stand may be politics, both her critics and supporters say, her decision is also consistent with her long-held determination to make schools more accountable.

"The superintendent has really been an activist for much of her tenure," said Marion Orr, a political science professor at Brown University and author of Black Social Capital: The Politics of School Reform in Baltimore. "This move really is not inconsistent."

However, some say Grasmick clearly has been less cooperative with and more aggressive toward Baltimore in the last couple of years, perhaps as her level of frustration with the city schools grew and she was emboldened by working under a governor and a president who embraced her philosophy.

She sees her takeover bid as something she had to do for the children.

"My belief is that for all our students, in the world they face, education is the ticket," Grasmick said.

"If we are not measuring, then we have denied students a lifelong opportunity."

In some ways, Grasmick has been headed toward this moment since she took the job.

In 1991, the state school board, then headed by Robert C. Embry Jr., was looking for a new superintendent who would change the direction of education in Maryland.

Across the nation the accountability movement was just beginning.

In Maryland, a blue-ribbon commission had issued a report that called for state-run tests that measured what children knew.

Grasmick was a Baltimore native and graduate of the city's elite Western High School. She had dedicated herself to education, beginning as a city special education teacher and moving on to high-level administrative jobs for the state and other systems.

Grasmick had the edge to get the state superintendent's job, Embry said, because she believed in the accountability movement. And Gov. William Donald Schaefer liked her.

"She was a local person. She was articulate and smart ... a woman," said Embry, who now heads the nonprofit Abell Foundation.

She was also politically adept - she has survived through three governors and many changes in the state board. The 67-year-old is now the longest-serving state superintendent in the country.

During her tenure, she launched the state tests known as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. The unpopular tests were tough exams given in the third, fifth and eighth grades. Individual student scores were never reported. Rather, MSPAP was designed to measure how well schools were teaching.

Each year, Grasmick would announce the results personally.

Those scores for the first time exposed the depth of the problems of Baltimore students. Some schools were miles behind their suburban counterparts, it turned out. Armed with the new data, two groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the state to try to get more money for city schools.

City-state partnership

By 1997, those lawsuits were culminating in a partial state takeover of the city school system - which Grasmick helped to craft. She was part of the negotiations when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agreed to give up some control of his city's schools in return for more state funding.

Schmoke said recently that in his first years as mayor, he had a cool relationship with Grasmick because of her closeness to Schaefer, his predecessor. But Schmoke's respect for her grew as he got to know her better. "I came to appreciate her interest and her sincerity," he said.

Grasmick happily took on a greater role in the Baltimore system under the new city-state partnership.

She helped draw up the list of candidates for the new school board appointed jointly by the governor and the mayor. She interviewed the candidates being considered for the chief executive officer's job.

By 2000, the abysmal performance documented by Grasmick's tests allowed her and the state school board to take over three city elementary schools. The state contracted with Edison Schools to operate them.

When George W. Bush was elected, he brought the accountability movement to a national stage with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Largely because of Grasmick's efforts, Maryland was years ahead of most other states. It was used to the idea of testing, of making lists of failing schools public and of taking action to try to improve poor schools.

Turning point

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