The first head-to-head conflict in what promises to be a contentious governor's race is brewing this week over education, the issue that state voters say is their biggest concern.
After a month of campaign ads promoting his record, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he plans to go on the offensive this week with a commercial attacking Democrats for the poor performance of Baltimore schools.
Ehrlich said the focus of his ad, which is scheduled to begin airing in the Baltimore area by the end of the week, will be a vote in this spring's General Assembly session that stopped the State Department of Education from taking over 11 under-performing city schools for at least a year.
"Mike Busch, Mike Miller and Martin O'Malley sentenced thousands of Baltimore schoolkids to absolutely nothing for another year," Ehrlich said, referring to the Democratic House speaker, Senate president and his Democratic opponent. "That vote is going to be what defines this campaign - their victory over children."
For his part, O'Malley lashed out at Ehrlich as he collected the endorsement of the state's largest teachers union yesterday. The mayor argued that the governor had underfunded school construction and sought confrontation instead of progress in education.
"While we needed collaboration for our children, instead we got confrontation and oftentimes - in school systems that were making some of the most hard-fought and hard-won gains - we got outright ridicule," O'Malley said, apparently referring to the city school system. "Instead of partnership, we got Bob Ehrlich."
Ehrlich and O'Malley have tussled for years over the city schools, with the mayor insisting they are making progress and the governor saying the state needs more control over the "dysfunctional" system.
A poll for The Sun this month found that education tops voters' lists of concerns, and both campaigns are focusing much of their attention on the issue in the early stages of the race. The poll showed that O'Malley has a 5 percentage point edge among voters on who would best handle education, a deficit the governor appears determined to reverse.
"Education is definitely the concern of a majority of Marylanders year after year after year, which is why we're the third most affluent state in the country," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College.
Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., the Bethesda public opinion research firm that conducted The Sun's poll, said Democrats almost always hold an edge on education in state elections but that Ehrlich has an opportunity if he can convince voters that the mayor is responsible for the city's poor test scores.
"If Ehrlich can exploit a chink in O'Malley's armor on education, the state's No. 1 issue, then the governor may have taken away the Democratic Party's historic advantage," Haller said. "The concern really pops with women and moderate voters, the swing constituency."
Under an arrangement dating to 1997, the city and the state have joint control over the city's school system, with the mayor and governor playing equal roles in appointing the school board.
Since O'Malley took office, student test scores in elementary schools have improved, in some cases significantly, but achievement in higher grades has continued to lag. As a whole, city schools perform worse than the rest of the state - as they have for long before O'Malley took office.
Ehrlich acknowledged yesterday that the problems with the city schools aren't O'Malley's fault alone. But he said the mayor is largely to blame for blocking the takeover this spring, which, he said, would have given some hope to students in the 11 schools.
"I want a debate about education," Ehrlich said. "That vote really symbolizes a lot in this campaign, and I'm not going to accept it. After this election, those kids are still going to be in a dysfunctional school system, and that is not acceptable."
Ehrlich brings up the city schools vote in nearly every speech he gives, calling it "the only issue in my career where there is literally no other side."
City leaders disagree. The city and state have equal roles in running the school system, so there's no reason to believe that giving more control to the state would help matters, they say.
"This is supposed to be a partnership between the city and the state, and any failure that might somehow be attributed to the Baltimore city schools I attribute to the state for their inability to give direct and consistent attention to the city public schools," said state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat.
Members of the Maryland State Teachers Association, which has feuded with Ehrlich over the years, said it is the governor who has failed to deliver for the state's children.