Gov. Martin O'Malley criticized state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's decision to delay a request for federal stimulus money for education, saying Friday that he wants Maryland to go after the $150 million next month.
"I find it very unusual that in the area where we're recognized as the best in the nation, that this is the one department that's not applying as aggressively as every other department has for these things," O'Malley said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.
Maryland has been awarded more than $4 billion in stimulus money this year, making it among the most competitive in the nation, O'Malley said.
State leaders have been quietly debating for months whether to compete for the stimulus dollars, which Grasmick and education experts say would require significant changes in the way teachers are evaluated and awarded tenure.
The U.S. Department of Education will distribute $4 billion this year to states willing to make school reforms through a program called Race to the Top. There are two rounds of applications, due in January and June. In selecting the winning states, federal education officials will use a point system to grade the progressiveness of their education policies.
Compared with other states, including California, Illinois and Tennessee, Maryland has done relatively little to position itself for the grant money, education experts have said. In other states, officials have rewritten laws and worked with union leaders to prepare for their applications.
Grasmick had said for weeks that Maryland would apply in January, contending that Maryland is progressive in enough areas to stand a shot. She changed her mind when the state recently lost a competition for nonprofit assistance in applying for the federal money, and last week she persuaded the school board to wait until June.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation turned down Maryland's application for grant-writing help because of concerns about the state's tenure law.
"We viewed the turndown of our grant application ... as a litmus test for round one," said Bill Reinhard, a state education spokesman. "We believe it made sense to concentrate on round two."
Still, O'Malley said he was disappointed by Grasmick's decision, which he said "came out of left field."
"I think we can do this," he said. Referring to the state's No. 1 ranking for public schools by Education Week and the College Board for Advanced Placement, O'Malley said: "We're presented with the unique challenge among the 50 states in Race to the Top, because we are at the top."
Grasmick could not be reached for comment Friday. Reinhard said Grasmick is "looking forward to working with the governor on Round 2."
Offering further evidence that Maryland should apply for the money in January, O'Malley, a Democrat, described a recent phone conversation with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has broad discretion in awarding the grant money.
"The secretary told me he can't imagine another state that's in a better position - right now, today - to apply for Race to the Top funds than we are," O'Malley said.
A spokesman for Duncan said that while the secretary did speak with the governor, he offered no such words of assurance.
"He never made any value statement" about Maryland's position with regard to the Race to the Top money, said Duncan spokesman Justin Hamilton. "It's fair to say he offered words of encouragement, just as he does to all of the states. He wants all of the states to apply for phase one."
Hamilton said O'Malley called Duncan to ask whether Maryland would be penalized for applying in June, rather than January. The secretary assured the governor that "it's up to Maryland when to apply. Either way, there's no disadvantage at all," Hamilton said.
O'Malley did not explain why he wants the state to apply in January, other than to say there's no penalty for applying and losing.
But Carl Roberts, head of the state superintendents association, said Maryland has its great education reputation, in part, because education officials apply for grants that they stand a good chance of winning.
"Submitting an application and being turned down doesn't look good for Maryland," Roberts said. "One has to question whether it's prudent" to apply in January if the state isn't ready.
At a state school board meeting last week, Grasmick said she believes Maryland must make three major changes to its education system, two of which would require legislation, before applying for the Race to the Top dollars.
Maryland offers teachers tenure in as few as two years, but Grasmick proposed pushing for legislation to increase that to three or four years. She also called for a law that would require unions to bargain over alternative pay, such as giving teachers extra pay to teach subjects in which there is a shortage of instructors. And, in a policy shift, she wants to link teacher evaluations to student test scores.
A spokesman for O'Malley said at the time that the governor "understands that some changes will be necessary." But on Friday, spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said that there is no impediment to Maryland pushing ahead with its Race to the Top application next month.
"Maryland schools are very progressive in a number of areas right now," the governor's spokesman said. "Up until a few days ago, Nancy Grasmick was saying the same thing."