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Glendening Brings the Insiders On Board for School Reform


As he honed his agenda for Maryland schools this past week, Gov. Parris N. Glendening surrounded himself with a constellation of education insiders.

When the time came in the glare of TV lights to thank these advisers, he reserved special mention for two. It was a symbolic moment, so fleeting that it would be easily overlooked in the flurry of policy and funding announcements.

"During these months . . . ," he said, "we smoothed out the antagonisms between the State Board and the teachers' representatives, and I am pleased at the developing working relationship between Nancy and Karl."

Karl Pence, president of the 46,000-strong Maryland State Teachers Association, the bargaining agent for teachers in all school districts except Baltimore City, had jetted back to Maryland in the middle of a family vacation for this moment. His place at the podium following State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick during Thursday's event was a sign of MSTA's new day in the spotlight.

It signals a new day for the state's teachers, who can now position themselves to be seen as leaders rather than targets of school reform.

For teachers, the link to the State House provides validation, recognition of their role in improving the quality of education and children's lives, classroom by classroom. For them, access also means power -- to influence work conditions in public education, obtain the support needed to do better by Maryland's children.

For the governor, a former college professor whose campaign was won with the help of teacher volunteers, MSTA members are front-line troops as well as agents of change. Mr. Glendening has delivered on his campaign promise to ensure teachers a voice in policy-making that affects teachers' careers. This is so different from what came before that its full implications have yet to be explored by either side.

During William Donald Schaefer's years as governor, the MSTA was treated as an outsider -- "a fall guy at worst, a nonentity at best," Mr. Pence says.

There were well-publicized clashes between the union and Mr. Schaefer's Department of Education when the state's long-range plans for school reform introduced to Marylanders a whole new way of delivering and testing school and school system quality.

Teachers feared they would be blamed for public education's failures under this plan, called the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, which continues today after five years. And in fact, when the schools cited as among the state's lowest performers were ordered to restructure, teachers felt the brunt of the shake-ups and lost long-held jobs in transfers.

Not all sweetness, light

Despite the involvement of many thousands of teachers in developing and fine-tuning the reform plan, tensions continued. They flared most recently this winter, when the union renewed a long-futile fight to end the state school board's responsibility for teacher standards and certification. The union wanted an independent standards board made up primarily of teachers to take on those duties. By April, when state legislators let the matter die in committee at the end of the session, Mr. Glendening had sided with the teachers and called on all parties to work together. During the past two months he has led both sides to the table to tailor school reform efforts to his agenda. Now when he describes his advisers on education policy, he often talks of a triumvirate: Dr. Grasmick and the state school board -- gatekeeper of Maryland's closely watched school reform programs -- and the teachers.

"The sad thing was to see the two of them, with their like notions, wasting any energy with this kind of turf dance," Mr. Glendening said during an interview last week. Now, "You'll see a better level of consensus building and communication than we've seen in a long time. I see that as being as important as the specific policies we develop."

To call the warming of their relationships a truce would be overreaching: The constituencies they represent have needs different enough that they must reserve the right to disagree -- contentiously, if necessary.

Mr. Glendening takes pleasure in relating that at one planning meeting, he spied Dr. Grasmick in close discussions with Mr. Pence, resting a hand collegially on his shoulder.

"I think there was a public agenda and a private agenda. We were closer together than the rhetoric would make it seem," said Christopher Cross, president of the state school board, which is also at the table.

"The real unspoken contract is [that Mr. Glendening] expects us to work cooperatively and . . . to come into an engagement that was not based on 'You're bad, I'm good,' " Mr. Pence said last week. "Talk about risk taking -- it's hard for any union to embrace any cooperative and collaborative effort with management. There's a much higher standard of performance put on me."

Before 1991, when the state's plan for improving schools was in its early stages, many were left out of the tight circle of players, Dr. Grasmick said last week. "I don't think it's always possible when first framing that type of agenda to have all of the parties involved. I think the time is really right, now."

One reason the timing is right is that after five years of engineering and fine-tuning and marketing, the reforms still have their critics but have built a coalition of support. Another reason is the support of Mr. Glendening, who last week announced he would add incentives to the program for schools that make progress under the reforms -- as a counterbalance to the unpleasantness of the mandated restructuring ordered for failing schools.

Dr. Grasmick predicted that there will still be disagreements with the union, but "I also see that some of those tensions can be beneficial because it prods us to do better work."

Observers throughout education circles are cautiously hopeful.

"I think they are in the beginning of the relationship: This is the honeymoon stage and it's not going to be as easy down the road," said Tru Ginsburg, government relations director of the Maryland Education Coalition, a policy-watching group that includes parents and teachers.

The most important development, she said, is the teachers' access to the governor.

"To have that access means you have developed a group power base and it gives you more status and more say at the decision-making level, and that can only be good."

The National Education Association, parent group of the MSTA, is watching. In few states have teachers unions won lead roles in systemic school reform, said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, NEA's interim government relations director. The result, she said, will have to include a shift in the MSTA's tactics as it learns to play in the game, instead of on the sidelines.

Mr. Pence agrees: The strategy that he referred to as "flame-throwing" may not be called for if the climate of fear dissipates with MSTA's newfound power.

Having the governor's ear means, he said, "You don't have to come in and spend all your time asserting your legitimacy" at the expense of discussing the issues. "We can't recollect a time when we've had this kind of experience."

It also means the union must regroup and reassess its agenda and its priorities as its political footing shifts, nearly everyone involved agrees. That won't be easy, as the role of a collective bargaining group is not universally seen as a participant in reforms that could lead to sanctions for some of its members. And unions depend on the volunteer support of their thousands of members.

Being accountable

The issue will be accountability, said Raymond Suarez, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, one of MSTA's largest chapters. "If you are allowed to play, to be part of the decision making . . . if we are going to set standards, we have to be held accountable for them."

Remaining realistic, Mr. Pence said, is equally as necessary if the results of cooperation are to have any significant effect.

"There is probably the best chance that the right evolutionary things will happen in a school if the people in the school community work together," he said. "It happens out in the school -- you can't cause it to happen on the seventh floor of the state Department of Education or on the fourth floor of the MSTA building.

L "Even the 'great team' is not going to create a magic wand."

Jean Thompson is an education reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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