IT WAS both surreal and troubling to hear Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's complaints about state education policy last week. Surreal, because the state's schools had just been judged among the nation's best. Troubling, because his comments could well portend a shift away from practices that have proved successful.
In an appearance on a Baltimore radio show, Mr. O'Malley (D) was asked to comment on State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and his desire to see her replaced. Mr. O'Malley called Ms. Grasmick "a pawn of the Republican Party" and criticized her support for the No Child Left Behind federal law. He made clear to host Marc Steiner on WYPR that if Ms. Grasmick does not leave willingly, he and Democratic leaders in the General Assembly will change the law that allowed the State Board of Education to reappoint her last month.
Mr. O'Malley's impatience with Ms. Grasmick is understandable given the backdoor manner in which she won reappointment. Seven months before the expiration of her latest four-year term, the board, dominated by lame ducks appointed by Mr. O'Malley's Republican predecessor, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., voted to extend her tenure. Mr. O'Malley is right to think that a duly elected governor should have some say in who leads the state's schools. Then, too, Ms. Grasmick seems intent on aggravating the governor with her public and very political campaign to hold on to her job.
He's wrong, though, to denigrate progress made during the 16 years of Ms. Grasmick's reign. A new report by highly regarded Education Week magazine ranked Maryland as the third-best school system in the country, behind New York and Massachusetts and just ahead of Virginia, which was fifth. One reason is that Ms. Grasmick pioneered the precepts of standards-based accountability enshrined in No Child Left Behind, precepts that do -- easy sound bites notwithstanding -- improve achievement. This is a civil rights issue: No Child Left Behind makes it harder for public school systems to hide the way they have failed too many poor, and especially poor black, children. Mr. O'Malley has yet to provide a full-throated presentation of his education agenda. We would hope that as he moves to put his own mark on this important area, he rises above his pique with Ms. Grasmick to appreciate the importance of measuring school and student performance.