ANNAPOLIS – Gov. Robert Ehrlich slipped recently and told an audience he and state Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick have “lived together” for a long time, instead of words he really meant – that they have worked together and known each other throughout their careers.
But everyone got the point. The two were virtually joined at the hip throughout the legislative session, with the schools chief serving as a key lobbying force behind the governor’s education initiatives.
Observers say it’s not unusual to see the state superintendent pressing for education dollars and endorsing public school initiatives facing the Maryland General Assembly. But others question whether she went too far this year in backing the governor’s plans.
The schools chief stood by Ehrlich’s side as he promoted charter schools – his only education plan to advance this year – as well as a proposal to overhaul the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, a juvenile detention center that got failing remarks from state educators.
Grasmick was visible at hearings and news conferences on Ehrlich’s most controversial initiative – a budget that tied slot machine revenue to money for public schools – and she never shied away as the governor faced mounting criticism from lawmakers and anti-gambling groups.
While Grasmick stopped short of saying she fully supported legalizing slot machines at the state’s race tracks, she pointed out, “We already have gambling in this state. It’s significant that we use lottery money.”
“I think what took people aback is when she lobbied for slots,” said Carol Arscott, a principle with Gonzales/Arscott Research & Communications, an Annapolis polling and market research firm. “Working the revenue issue was out of character.”
Grasmick, a Democrat, said she was never out of step in standing by the Republican governor, and she said those who criticized her do not represent the majority.
She said her role was simple: to press for dollars to support initiatives of the Thornton Commission, the group that last year recommended sweeping reforms for schools statewide.
“We need a new source of revenue to fund the Thornton requirements,” Grasmick said. “I don’t generate the bills, and I don’t pass the bills . . . This is my role, to advocate for education.”
But the issue raises questions about how the state superintendent should act during the legislative session: as a passive observer or an activist looking to influence an outcome. This year, Grasmick took the latter role, said Blair Lee, a political analyst and president of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring.
“We’ve had activist superintendents in the past,” Lee said. “I assume she feels her role is to enhance education, and you can’t do that without money . . . Is it proper? It’s up to the school board.”
Board President Marilyn Maultsby has defended Grasmick, saying board members understood her intentions “to advocate on behalf of getting funds in (to the budget).” Grasmick has “absolutely not” lost her image as a nonpartisan school official, she said.
If Ehrlich had solutions on the table that could fix the education budget, Grasmick was not wrong to throw her support behind them, Maultsby said.
“She’s chosen a path that may be controversial, but she’s well within her rights to do that,” added David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party. “Her motives, I do not question, ever. His motives you have to always question.”
Martin Madden, a special assistant to Ehrlich, said Grasmick’s presence this session meant that she took seriously the commitments of the Thornton Commission.
“Superintendent Grasmick knows it’s going to take real substantial dollars,” Madden said. “For the second year in a row, the House has talked about Thornton and done nothing to support it.”
But Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, saw the situation differently, and he said she “clearly exceeded her role” and “shouldn’t have been involved, so out-front.”
Pinsky, a vocal slots opponent, also questioned whether Grasmick’s lobbying for education money had more to do with support for Ehrlich. Last year, she made Ehrlich’s list of potential candidates for lieutenant governor but decided against the position. The governor does not have direct authority over Grasmick, but he does have the power to name members of the state school board, which appoints the superintendent. The board renewed a four-year contract for Grasmick in July 2000.
Pinsky also said Grasmick skipped budget hearings about closing corporate loopholes and increasing the cigarette tax, two proposals – aside from slot machine revenue – that could have raised money for education.
“She didn’t show up on those days,” he said.
Grasmick’s support of charter schools this year, while far less controversial, also was a plus for Ehrlich. As lawmakers were negotiating the terms of the governor’s bill in the final weeks of the session, Ehrlich said he had called on Grasmick to lobby for amendments.
Ehrlich’s bill was replaced by a weaker version that left chartering authority in the hands of local school boards. The final version ensured an appeal process to the state board. “She tries to be supportive of the administration, whichever administration is in office,” said Delegate John Leopold, R-Anne Arundel. He also said Grasmick’s position on charter schools has changed from opposition to support over years.
“I don’t question her commitment to public schools,” Leopold said. “But the fact of the matter is her initial position on charter schools has evolved.”
Lee said some of the questions about Grasmick’s partnership with Ehrlich may stem from the fact that Marylanders are simply not used to figuring out how the schools chief fits into the mix when the Republican governor and Democratic- controlled Legislature clash.
“We are so unused to a two-party government in this state,” Lee said. “We’re blinking and rubbing our eyes and wondering what happened.”