Schools standoff

November 15, 2006

Governor-elect Martin O'Malley and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick are jockeying publicly over her future. Mr. O'Malley, who has been mayor of Baltimore while Ms. Grasmick has repeatedly shown her displeasure over the direction of the city's schools, has been suggesting that it is time for Ms. Grasmick to step down. Ms. Grasmick, who has about 20 months left on her latest four-year contract, wants to stay put. If that happens, a lot of bad feeling will have to be put aside.

In office since 1991, Ms. Grasmick is one of Maryland's longest-serving state schools chiefs. She was selected by the bipartisan State Board of Education, whose 12 members are appointed by the governor. Unless she changes her mind and chooses to leave voluntarily, Mr. O'Malley's only recourse may be to try gentler persuasion, wait until he can make some of his own appointments to the state school board or make the best of an awkward relationship.

Despite their differences, Mr. O'Malley can't dismiss Ms. Grasmick's expertise. A strong advocate for accountability and assessments, she has focused on student achievement and pushed for quality education from pre-kindergarten through high school. But though she's a self-described Democrat, she's made herself vulnerable by appearing to let politics creep into some of her educational decisions, aligning herself with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and being publicly named as a possible lieutenant governor candidate on his ticket in 2002 and 2006.

Her treatment of Baltimore, particularly while Bonnie S. Copeland was the city schools' CEO, became more and more high-handed, culminating in her attempt this year to remove 11 troubled schools from the direct control of the city school system. The General Assembly's imposition of a one-year moratorium put the proposal on hold, and it's not likely to be revived with Mr. O'Malley and a slightly more Democratic legislature taking over in January.

If Ms. Grasmick and Mr. O'Malley are, indeed, stuck with each other, then they must look beyond their recent contentious history and work together to improve public education in Maryland.

Unlike Mr. Ehrlich, Mr. O'Malley wants additional funding under the Thornton law to compensate for geographical differences among districts, and he also wants more money than Mr. Ehrlich proposed for school construction. At the same time, Ms. Grasmick could use some help elevating the performance of middle schools around the state and ensuring that all high school students can pass mandatory assessments in order to graduate.

Such common causes may not make a beautiful friendship, but they could help establish a working relationship.

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