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Grasmick called a 'pawn' of GOP

The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley called longtime state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick "a pawn of the Republican Party" yesterday, and other top Democrats said she should resign, indicating on the opening day of this year's legislative session that they might make good on threats to force her out.

In his first public comments about Grasmick since she was reappointed by the state Board of Education, O'Malley criticized her support for the federal No Child Left Behind Act and said he wants new leadership for Maryland's schools.

The two have been at odds since O'Malley was Baltimore mayor, but the conflict is poised to come to a head in the next three months, as legislative leaders have suggested they might give the governor more direct control over her hiring and firing.

Speaking during a morning taping of WYPR-FM's Marc Steiner Show, O'Malley, a Democrat, said that if Grasmick refused to resign he would support legislation enabling the state school board to replace her with someone who is not a "poster child for No Child Left Behind or a pawn of the Republican Party."

"I'm looking forward to a new superintendent, and I'm looking forward to bringing one [on] in the very near future," O'Malley said.

But Grasmick appears determined not to go without a fight, and she made her case to Republican lawmakers in Annapolis on Tuesday. On the same day, to bolster her position, she held a news briefing in which she highlighted that Education Week's new report ranked Maryland's schools third in the nation.

The well-regarded national education weekly ranked Maryland behind New York and Massachusetts after analyzing each state on dozens of measures.

Grasmick was quick to point out that the top three ranked states have long-serving state superintendents who are appointed by state school boards not by governors.

That comment appeared intended for legislative leaders. Last month, the state school board reappointed Grasmick to a four-year contract, over the objections of O'Malley and other top Democrats. The governor has said he lost trust in Grasmick after her attempt to take over failing schools in Baltimore during an election campaign when he was mayor.

The governor appoints school board members, but the majority of the current board was appointed by O'Malley's predecessor, Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

As the Education Week report was being released yesterday morning, O'Malley and legislative leaders increased the pressure on Grasmick.

"Nancy Grasmick is not going to be the superintendent, that's my prediction," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said during the radio show. "She should step aside."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, who also spoke on the radio program, was the least combative of the three top Democratic leaders, saying Grasmick had "done a lot of wonderful things" during her 16-year tenure as superintendent, but that the board needed to be responsive to political leaders.

Grasmick, in a briefing with Republican lawmakers Tuesday, said Maryland has had a long-standing tradition of insulating the superintendent's appointment from politics.

She said she would testify against any legislation to change that process.

"It's not about me. I want to make that very clear," she said. "It is about the system and why the separation is so important."

Little of the debate over Grasmick's job has revolved around education policy. Yesterday, O'Malley criticized her for her support of No Child Left Behind, which was the mechanism by which Grasmick attempted to take control of 11 city schools in 2006.

Education Week graded every state on a wide variety of measures, and gave Maryland high marks for having solid statewide education policies, making good gains on national tests and having one of the highest pass rates on Advanced Placement exams.

Grasmick said one of the reasons the state ranked so high was the work that has been done since she became superintendent in 1991 and began a campaign to bring more accountability to schools statewide.

"This is not easy work. It requires sustainability," she said.

"I think parents should be very impressed with this report," Grasmick said. "If they are interested in education, then Maryland is a good place."

Maryland got a B in school achievement, the second- highest grade in the nation. Only Massachusetts scored better.

The achievement ranking measured not only how well students score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress - Maryland students score only slightly above the average - but also gave weight to significant increase in test scores. Maryland's eighth-graders scored particularly well in math in 2007.

The state's graduation rate, already above the national average, is going up and pass rates on the Advanced Placement exams are high.

Sun reporters Gadi Dechter and Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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