ANNAPOLIS – Calling it “the most important issue facing the state of Maryland today,” Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Wednesday heatedly defended his vow to veto legislation aimed at blocking the state from intervening on behalf of 11 failing Baltimore city public schools this year.
“This bill strikes at the heart of the education program of this state,” said Ehrlich, who had earlier described the bill as the “triumph of politics and partisanship over the kids.”
Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, meanwhile, warned that the state could lose as much as $171 million in federal education funds if the state is prevented from stepping in to improve performance in the failing city schools.
“Education shouldn’t be the subject of partisan politics,” Ehrlich said. ” . . . I respectfully request that the General Assembly show leadership and sustain my veto.”
Ehrlich’s remarks came at the beginning of the bi-monthly meeting of the Board of Public Works. A spokeswoman for Ehrlich said that he had not vetoed the bill by late Wednesday.
For their part, Democratic leaders of the General Assembly were just as aggressive in hurling the charge of Election Year politics back at Ehrlich.
“That’s just right-wing malarkey,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince Georges and Calvert, who predicted flatly that an Ehrlich veto would be overridden. “They’re not going to take money away from schools. They just want to keep Mayor O’Malley subjugated.”
Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley is a leading candidate to challenge Ehrlich’s reelection bid.
The other leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, also jumped into the fray Wednesday with a plague-on-both-their-houses statement of his own.
“This debate should be about how we are going to fix these schools, not who is going to control them,” Duncan said. “Neither the governor nor the mayor has shown a commitment to education that goes any further than the next election cycle.”
The United States Department of Education sent a letter to Grasmick which stated that if the legislation is enacted, the federal government has the authority to withhold education funding under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Grasmick said that the funding loss could be up to $171 million.
The letter said that a state educational agency that “does not, or cannot, carry out its statutory responsibilities” to reach federally mandated performance standards “would be subject to potential enforcement actions, including the withholding of funds.”
Compounding the issue is an opinion from state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, Jr. which is in direct opposition to the federal department of education’s stated position and of Grasmick’s and Ehrlich’s interpretation of it.
Curran, a Democrat who is O’Malley’s father-in-law, said that the legislation “would not impair the state’s ability to carry out its responsibilities” under federal law or jeopardize federal funding.
Grasmick, who has come under heavy fire as the first state superintendent in the country to attempt to intervene in local school matters in such a way, spoke Wednesday in support of her proposal, and also denounced the use of the word “takeover” to describe it. “We do not operate the system and do not have the authority to on a day to day basis,” she said, other than it’s special education program. She added that “any schools that are chronically under-performing have to, under federal law, be placed under corrective action.”