Several senators oppose Grasmick's school reform plan

January 21, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz | julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Several Maryland senators are balking at the state schools superintendent's proposals to alter teacher tenure and compensation as a way to win millions of dollars in federal funding — a signal that education reforms could become a major topic of debate in the legislative session.

Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, in a Senate committee briefing Thursday, outlined the changes she will probably seek this year as Maryland chases as much as $250 million in Race to the Top money that the U.S. Department of Education is awarding to states with the most progressive school policies.

Grasmick said legislation is essential if Maryland wants to win the federal money.

"We need to show tangible efforts, not just good intentions," she said.

But some senators, including Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and a teachers union organizer for the past 15 years, said he is uncomfortable with the "carrot" of federal money driving state policy.

"I'm not convinced," Pinsky said after the briefing. "I haven't heard any convincing arguments."

Maryland was one of 10 states that did not apply in the first round of applications for the federal funding, due earlier this week. The next round is due June 1, and Grasmick said Thursday that Maryland will definitely apply.

Grasmick said she wants lawmakers to extend the two-year teacher tenure process by at least a year, packaging that with added support for new teachers. She also wants to provide incentive pay for high-performing teachers who agree to work in low-performing schools.

Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat, said his understanding of Race to the Top is that it would require "significant changes," potentially reopening the charter school debate. Maryland has some of the weakest charter school laws in the nation, a consideration in the federal competition.

No school legislation has been introduced thus far in the General Assembly session.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, said last month that he did not believe that Maryland must revise laws to be competitive for Race to the Top money, but he and Grasmick have recently been discussing changes that she feels are needed.

Joseph C. Bryce, O'Malley's chief legislative officer, said the governor is "working closely with all of the stakeholders," including Grasmick, teachers, parents and local school boards, "to put together a bill that we think will strengthen our application."

Sen. James C. Rosapepe, a Democrat representing Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, questioned whether changing tenure laws would address teacher retention issues.

Grasmick said about half of the teachers who left last year did so in the first five years of service. Analysts at Thursday's briefing said each teacher who leaves costs the system $15,000 to $30,000 in costs of separation and extra recruiting, hiring and training.

Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller said in an interview this week that he supports the teacher tenure proposal, though he noted that there should be a way "to speed up the process for quality teachers," such as experienced professionals who make a career switch to teaching.

Miller said he was unsure he could support legislation making it easier to open charter schools.

"We worked hard to make our public schools the best," Miller said. "I wouldn't want to undermine that."

He urged Grasmick to take the lead in pushing education reforms that she believes would make the Maryland more competitive for Race to the Top grants.

"Honestly and truly, Dr. Grasmick did not make it a priority," Miller said. "You've got to be out front on these things."

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

This article has been modified from an earlier version to more accurately reflect the views of Sen. James Rosapepe.

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