Grasmick gets a C-plus

The Baltimore Sun

Nancy S. Grasmick, the state's long-serving schools superintendent who is fighting to keep her job, gets a C-plus from Maryland voters, according to a new Sun poll. And fewer than a third think she should have been given a new four-year term.

Despite rating Maryland schools and Grasmick's job performance slightly above average, just 30 percent of voters said the State Board of Education was right to re-appoint her last month, while 44 percent said they would like "someone new." A quarter had no opinion or were not sure.

The debate over Grasmick's future has played out as an extension of a feud between the schools chief and Gov. Martin O'Malley that dates to his time as mayor. But among poll respondents who agreed to follow-up interviews, attitudes about Grasmick largely mirrored voters' opinions of their own school systems.

"I think her leadership has been fine," said Mark Peacock, the father of first- and fourth-graders who rates their Reisterstown school as excellent. "I think she seems to be an unbiased, middle-of-the-road appointee."

But Kathleen Kelm, a retired Army nurse from Anne Arundel County, said she believes the schools need significant change and that Grasmick should go.

"I don't think she is radical enough," Kelm said. "I support the governor."

When asked how they would grade the public schools in their area, the majority of respondents from around the state handed out either a B or a C. About 13 percent said their schools had earned an A, while 17 percent gave them either a D or F.

This month, Education Week ranked Maryland schools third best in the nation.

In the poll, Grasmick received mixed reviews, with 57 percent of voters giving her either a B or C.

Grasmick's new term begins July 1, though the governor and legislative leaders have said they want her to leave. They have vowed to introduce legislation that would give the governor greater say in who holds the post.

Grasmick, who has been superintendent for 16 years, said this week that she will oppose any legislation that makes her job a political appointment. She believes that education policy should be insulated from politics.

"As a nonelected official, my constituency has always been the children of Maryland, and we often must make tough choices," Grasmick said through a spokesman. "But it is gratifying that two-thirds of voters believe Maryland schools are on the right track. We understand this survey was completed well before Education Week came out with its respected national ranking placing Maryland schools among the top three in the nation."

The statewide poll of 904 likely voters was conducted Jan. 6-9 for The Sun by the independent, non-partisan firm OpinionWorks of Annapolis. It has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points. The Education Week report was released Jan. 9.

The poll did not distinguish between those respondents who have children in public schools and those who do not.

Parents consistently give their own schools higher rankings than does the public, said Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the Maryland State Teachers Association. He said that might explain why Education Week gave Maryland's schools a higher ranking than the poll respondents did.

When parents or grandparents know teachers and a principal, they tend to have a positive opinion. "It is their school and they see good things going on in those schools," Kaufman said.

Cecil County Schools Superintendent Carl Roberts said that his school district surveys parents every year and that the school system usually gets an A-minus to B-plus.

But Roberts said he would give schools statewide a B.

Much has changed in schools that people who aren't parents don't realize, said Betty Morgan, Washington County superintendent and head of the local superintendents association.

"It isn't your mother's school system. We are really trying to educate all kids and that wasn't true even 20 years ago," Morgan said.

She said she believes most parents are satisfied.

The Education Week report gave Maryland schools a B based on the state's education policies, its early childhood education and the achievement of its students on a national test. Only Massachusetts and New York ranked higher than Maryland.

The response on the new Sun poll was consistent with polling surveys conducted by the paper over the past decade. Six years ago, voters gave their public schools a nearly identical grade.

Ratings of schools varied in the poll depending on where the respondents lived. Likely voters living in Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties gave higher grades to schools than those in Prince George's County and Baltimore City.

In the city, more than half of those polled said they would give the schools a D or failing grade, while only 17 percent gave them a B or A.

Some respondents said that they had little knowledge of Grasmick, but that they held her responsible for some of the problems they perceived in the state's educational system.

"Sometimes you need to get new blood and new ideas. If someone sits in one place they can get complacent," said Jessie Walton of Randallstown.

But Walton said she does not blame Grasmick as much as she does parents who aren't involved enough in demanding better schools.

"If we would raise more of a stink, then I think it would be better. ... There is no heat coming in the kitchen," she said.

Others said they are particularly concerned about buildings that aren't kept up or other resources they see lacking in schools.

Bernadette Hicks, who lives in Randallstown, gave bad grades to her local schools and gave Grasmick a C. She said that she has seen differences in the quality of education in the city and Baltimore County and that she doesn't think that's fair.

"It seems like all the schools should be the same, equality," she said.

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