It's silly to leave Grasmick behind

The Baltimore Sun

Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's state superintendent of schools, said she's proud of the fact that four different Democrats who've run for governor asked her to be their lieutenant governor.

A fifth Democrat might ask her one day; you'd make some easy money by betting that it won't be Gov. Martin O'Malley. The guv's made it clear: He wants Grasmick out.

Grasmick's a "poster child for No Child Left Behind," O'Malley has groused on public airwaves. What's more, she's "a pawn of the Republican Party."

The guv made those comments on Marc Steiner's radio show. He said them like supporting NCLB and being a pawn of the Republican Party are bad things.

Let's assume both things are true. In a state where Democrats dominate the legislature and there've been only two Republican governors in the past 41 years, isn't a state superintendent of schools being a "pawn of the Republican Party" a good thing? The last bastion of bipartisan politics in Maryland might be the state schools headquarters on Baltimore Street.

"I've tried to be bipartisan," Grasmick told me earlier this week. I asked Grasmick for an interview, and she consented. As testy as the guv and leading Dems in the state Senate and House of Delegates are about Grasmick, I figured it might be my last chance to interview her while she's still superintendent.

Under the current system, the governor appoints members to the state school board, who then choose a state superintendent. Grasmick was first appointed in 1991. In December, the board - which was then made up mostly of members appointed by former Gov. Robert Ehrlich - voted to give Grasmick another four-year term.

O'Malley cried foul. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller predicted, according to a story in The Sun, that "Nancy Grasmick is not going to be the superintendent. She should step aside." (Note to Miller: Grasmick already is the superintendent.)

House Speaker Michael E. Busch complimented Grasmick but hinted that the board should have waited to appoint a superintendent more suitable to the state's political leadership. Suddenly the woman who's served as superintendent under two Democratic governors and a Republican one is "a tool of the Republican Party."

"I don't understand why suddenly the whole business of being identified with the Republicans is so front and center," Grasmick said. "Actually, I'm a Democrat."

Grasmick added that there are Democrats who support NCLB, which is a bipartisan piece of legislation. She mentioned Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy as one of NCLB's chief supporters. A note to the guv: If you've really got a bone in your nose about NCLB, Grasmick isn't your problem. It's Ted. You need to holla at him, son.

Or O'Malley could simply do what no other governor - or state legislature - in the country has had the gumption to do. For all of the whining, wailing, wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth about how horrible NCLB is, no state has told the federal government, "Keep the money you give us for education. We don't need it. We'll raise taxes to make up the difference and educate our children our way."

That should be O'Malley's message to the feds. Instead of being in a snit about Grasmick, he should get the backing of the Maryland legislature and tell the federal government to stick its education dollars where the sun don't shine. If you don't want to be accountable to the feds, don't take money from the feds.

Grasmick said she believes in accountability. That's why she supports NCLB. That's why she supports having students take the Maryland High School Assessments and, before that, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. The dreaded MSPAP - long the bane of many Maryland teachers, if the e-mails I've received from some are any indication - was, Grasmick insists, this state's way of ensuring that students were learning long before NCLB became the law of the land.

And it was that system of accountability, Grasmick adds, that resulted in Education Week ranking Maryland's public schools No. 3 in the country earlier this month. Massachusetts and New York came in ahead of Maryland, and Grasmick wasn't bashful about pointing out that those states also have superintendents who've been in place for quite a spell.

And, she added, all were appointed by school boards, not governors. Grasmick said Maryland's system has been in place since 1916 and was designed to keep politics out of education. That's why she's not resigning.

"I'm doing this," she said, "because there's a very critical protection of a principle: The education of our children should not be subjected to partisan politics."

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