Education award has political implications

O'Malley likely to talk about award on campaign trail

August 24, 2010|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

Word that Maryland will share more than $4 billion in federal education grants stirred excitement among school leaders and had another group grinning: Gov. Martin O'Malley's re-election campaign.

The Democratic governor has made education a central theme in his campaign, which most opinion polls show to be a closely fought contest with former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.

O'Malley brags about the state's top ranking by Education Week magazine and his efforts to preserve school funding. He endorsed changes in tenure laws and teacher evaluations to boost Maryland's chances at getting the federal money, a stance that angered influential teachers unions.

At a hastily convened news conference Tuesday, O'Malley rebuffed questions about the political implications of the Race to the Top award, but said he was "very, very proud of the work the school systems have done."

"Our state is going through a big economic transformation," he said. "One of the strongest horses we have pulling us forward is our educational system."

Others, though, quickly noted the implications. The announcement re-emphasized the O'Malley campaign theme that our schools are improving, even in a tough economic times, said Josh White, the governor's 2006 campaign manager, who is now an Annapolis lobbyist. "I think it is a very powerful message."

The federal award puts an added $250 million into state and local school budgets, but it also burnishes Maryland's reputation as having one of the best school systems in the country. Maryland was one of a dozen states and the District of Columbia to be awarded funding in two rounds of competition — 24 others were denied.

"I think it is a star for Maryland," said state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and teachers union official. He said O'Malley can rightly take credit: "He's been the governor the last four years."

Democrats, who make up the largest segment of undecided voters in the Maryland gubernatorial race, are most sensitive to education as an issue, said pollster Keith Haller of Potomac Inc. and a longtime observer of state politics.

He noted that the education award would resonate most strongly in the three areas that O'Malley needs to win by large margins to secure re-election: the city of Baltimore and Montgomery and Prince George's counties. About half of the state's 1.9 million Democrats live in those three places.

"You could develop a very effective TV spot," Haller said. "It is still something that the governor can talk about with a lot of pride and emotion wherever he goes."

Any boost is significant in a race that is so close, said Patrick Gonzales, a pollster who has recently surveyed the gubernatorial contest.

Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, said O'Malley will have to discuss the issue cautiously, warning of trouble if programs are launched that would require more state or local money after federal funds evaporate.

Ehrlich's campaign echoed that sentiment. In a statement, Ehrlich spokesman Andy Barth said the next step is "ensuring that this new influx of dollars is spent in a cost-effective way."

But, in a tacit acknowledgement of the importance of the award, Barth also sought to give Ehrlich some credit by saying that the former governor made education funding a priority and noting that Ehrlich created the law establishing charter schools, which he said had helped make the state a contender.

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