A Md. senator's conflict of interest shouldn't prevent strong school reform

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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

MARYLAND'S GENERAL ASSEMBLY has been considering some reasonable school reforms supported by State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. If adopted they would enhance the state's chances for federal Race to the Top dollars. But as the legislative session winds down this week, a troubling obstacle -- in the form of one legislator's conflict of interest -- has appeared. Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) is playing an oversize role as chair of the Senate's education subcommittee; at the same time, he is a union organizer for Montgomery County Education Association. Since the General Assembly's lax ethics rules see nothing wrong with this arrangement, it's up to Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to let lawmakers know he won't sign a bill that lacks meaningful change.

The Senate and House have passed separate bills dealing with teacher tenure and compensation. The House bill (HB 1263) is largely in keeping with the modest reforms envisioned by Ms. Grasmick and advanced by Mr. O'Malley to link student achievement to teacher evaluation. The measure passed by the Senate (SB 899) gives lip service to the idea that teachers should be judged by how effective they are in the classroom, but it has no teeth. Consider, for example, that the House bill mandates that student growth shall account for 50 percent of the performance evaluation criteria, while the Senate bill is silent on specifics. Equally significant, the House bill empowers county school boards to establish performance measures after "conferring" with local unions, while the Senate would make the measures subject to collective bargaining.

Much of this is because of Mr. Pinsky, who in watering down the bills is serving the interest of his union employer. The senator argues that his dual role -- as union organizer and writer of laws that directly affect unions -- is "no different" than that of his colleagues who are trial lawyers and deal with criminal justice issues. Even if that is true, his obvious conflict of interest -- and the General Assembly's toleration of it -- is a travesty.

With less than a week before adjournment, the House and Senate will meet in conference committee to reconcile the two education bills. If the interests of Maryland's public school students are to prevail, it's paramount that Mr. O'Malley intervene for the better bill.


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