Popular Md. Chief Stays Neutral as Candidates Battle Over Education
At the end of her speech to a group of principals of low-performing schools here, Nancy S. Grasmick strolls through the crowd in the hotel lobby, grasping hands and smiling.
Maryland's popular state superintendent has made seven public appearances in five days, ranging from a televised speech on the state's teacher shortage to a celebrity-studded event to publicize a reading initiative.
As Maryland's tight gubernatorial race barrels toward next week's election--with education playing a central part--Ms. Grasmick says she's happy to be above the fray. As an appointee of the state board of education, Ms. Grasmick, unlike many of her counterparts in other states, does not need to run for her post or endorse a candidate for governor. She's delighted, she says, to lecture local educators about academic standards while the political hopefuls slug it out in sound bites.
The Democratic incumbent, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who was running neck and neck last week with his Republican challenger, former state legislator Ellen R. Sauerbrey, is largely campaigning on his record as a backer of public education. In campaign literature, Gov. Glendening boasts that he has pushed through a school construction budget that paid to build or renovate more than 6,000 classrooms.
Since he took office in January 1995, state aid to public education has increased by more than 30 percent. In campaign advertisements, Mr. Glendening pledges to continue that level of support, as well as reduce early-grade class sizes and add 1,100 new teachers.
While Ms. Sauerbrey differs from the governor in that she supports tuition tax credits for parents, she, too, advocates increasing teacher ranks--adding 1,001 jobs by 2002. Pointing to her stint as a high school teacher in the 1960s, Ms. Sauerbrey says there is a need to expand technical and vocational training programs in high schools, and she calls for putting reading specialists in elementary schools.
With education at the top of the agenda, both candidates--who are in a rematch Nov. 3 after Mr. Glendening's narrow win over Ms. Sauerbrey in 1994--have also sought to align themselves with the popular policies Ms. Grasmick has been promoting.
Mr. Glendening, a former college professor who has fought with the schools chief on many education issues in the past, now cites some of her nationally recognized reform ideas as accomplishments of his administration.
In his bid for governor four years ago, Mr. Glendening had some qualms about the state's rigorous new testing system. Since taking office, he has endorsed the high-stakes tests that students will have to pass in order to graduate, beginning in 2004.
Ms. Sauerbrey's education platform also contains some of the same goals, from smaller class sizes to accountability measures, that Ms. Grasmick has endorsed since becoming superintendent in September 1991.
Ms. Grasmick, 59, says she can be more independent because she doesn't have to run for office. It also helps that she could quit her $119,000-a-year job tomorrow because her husband is a millionaire lumber-company executive.
"I don't need to work, which means I can take risks," Ms. Grasmick said last week. "Because of that, I'm not going to be co-opted to save my job."
So she goes out on a limb sometimes, and she clearly enjoys it.
Next week, the superintendent plans to submit to the state board a controversial plan to offer a $500 income-tax break for teachers. By 2001, Maryland will need an additional 11,000 teachers to cope with growing student enrollment, and Ms. Grasmick says the $25 million annual expenditure would help attract more candidates.
The superintendent's teacher-recruitment plan, which requires legislative and gubernatorial approval, also calls for up to $1 million for a pre-tax tuition credit for graduate courses required for teacher certification.
Gov. Glendening, who received $5,000 from the Maryland State Teachers Association's political arm for his campaign, has not yet said whether he would endorse such a tax break if re-elected.
The MSTA has opposed the tax-break plan, saying that giving tax credits to teachers would thwart local efforts to raise salaries.
"The last thing on earth that teachers need to elevate their esteem in the community is to separate them by some special tax mechanism," said Karl Pence, the president of the MSTA , a 48,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association. "Let's put $25 million into salaries so that making teaching a career choice makes some sense."
Mr. Pence sees the tax-break plan as an example of the superintendent's overconfidence in her own ideas: "This is a Nancyism. She gets a bright idea, and bingo, you are fighting over something, and the only way to do it is Nancy's way."
Ms. Grasmick, meanwhile, sees the union as looking out only for its members' interests on this issue. "Our constituencies are different," she said. "My constituency is children. There's is a political agenda for teachers."
But while she clearly irks some educators in the state on some issues, most in the education community admire her strong vision for education and see her as more of a leader than the governor.
"Glendening is someone who has provided a lot of support for bread-and-butter-type education initiatives such as school construction. But his support for reform initiatives has been largely to follow directions set by the state superintendent and the state board," said James Cibulka, the chairman of the education policy department at the University of Maryland.
Mr. Cibulka and others who have observed the superintendent say she ought to run for political office. And despite her protestations about being above it all, Ms. Grasmick says she might be interested in the governor's office--some day. She has been approached by some in the business community about a gubernatorial bid, she said.
"We all think it's an interesting prospect," said Ms. Grasmick, whose term expires in 2000. "I never say no to any opportunity."