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Gov. Martin O'Malley defended on Monday Maryland's efforts to qualify for Race to the Top federal education funds, saying the state is competitively positioned despite being characterized by some as visibly lagging behind other states.

The Democratic governor acknowledged that some states might be doing a better job meeting individual criteria set by the Obama administration to win a share of $4 billion in grants, of which Maryland could receive $150 million to $250 million. But he added that no state is doing better overall and touted Maryland's progress in turning around lower-achieving schools, coordinating educational efforts and emphasizing science, technology and math.

"We're in a very strong position to go after those Race to the Top grants," O'Malley said at a meeting in Annapolis of the so-called P-20 Council of education, business and civic leaders. "These can be critically important dollars."

Officials including state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick say they have been quietly working to apply for a slice of the stimulus money, which is being used as an inducement for states to agree to an agenda aimed at improving school achievement. But some of the proposed reforms face resistance from the Maryland State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Grasmick said two "thorny" issues are whether the state's charter school law should be strengthened and whether to extend the time it takes for teachers to become eligible for tenure, now two to three years. She and O'Malley also acknowledged that Maryland is behind other states in building a data system capable of linking student progress to teacher performance.

O'Malley said he is open to revamping the charter school law, but isn't sure it's needed. He noted a number of charter schools have opened in Baltimore in recent years.

As for extending the time needed to achieve tenure, which makes it harder to remove teachers, O'Malley said supervisors often use civil service or tenure rules as an excuse for not doing their jobs. "What do they need - another year to not write someone up that's not cutting it?" he said. "I don't accept that."

O'Malley also mentioned the possibility of using federal grant money to offer leading educators "challenge" or "difficulty" pay for agreeing to move to struggling schools in need of a new principal.

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