Josh Kurtz: Getting Schooled by Larry Hogan

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When she announced her resignation last month, State Superintendent of Education Lillian Lowery described her new gig, heading an early education nonprofit in Columbus, Ohio, as an irresistible opportunity.

Perhaps it was. But it is also possible that Lowery, a lifelong public school teacher and administrator who spent almost four years in the top job, saw changes coming in the state that she did not want to be a part of.

Quietly, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is seeking to remake the Maryland State Board of Education, filling it with advocates for charter schools, religious education and greater corporate involvement in the management of schools. Five of Hogan’s appointees are already serving on the state board on a provisional basis – their nominations will be considered by the state Senate next year – and by the end of 2016 the overwhelming majority of the 11 board members will be Hogan’s appointees (a 12th slot is filled annually by a high school student).

Why is this important?

To be sure, many of the most critical education debates in Maryland take place in the State House. There are constant battles over funding formulas and frequent jockeying over capital spending. At the same time, local school boards are by and large very powerful.

But the state Board of Education has a ton of say over public education policy and governance – from testing and other accountability measures, to setting curriculum and academic policies, to establishing management and personnel standards, to laying out the range of services available to students, to doling out grants to school districts with innovative programs.

Imagine a school board whose leaders are bent on dismantling the state public education system as we know it, in the name of the nebulous and politically-charged concept of reform. It could happen.

For years, education policy in the state was synonymous with one name: Nancy Grasmick. A former teacher and principal, she served as state schools superintendent for 20 years before retiring in 2011. She was as deft a political player as there is; an intimate of William Donald Schaefer’s – her husband was a top Schaefer political donor – she was the closest thing to a bullet-proof, politically made woman as there is in this state.

Governors came and went, but “St. Nancy” was always there, and state school board members, though technically her bosses, were sometimes chosen specifically to work in harmony with her, and often enough they protected her from hostile chief executives. Former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) – whose administration represented a restoration for the Schaefer crowd after eight years of Gov. Parris Glendening (D) – thought so highly of Grasmick that he considered making her his running mate in at least two of his three statewide campaigns.

Hogan was a product of Ehrlich’s administration, and the two are close philosophically. Hogan, like Ehrlich, faces huge Democratic majorities in the legislature, and he will constantly be doing battle with them. But Hogan, in contrast to Ehrlich, seems determined to set a new ideological course for state government to the extent that he can, and he’s going to seize every opportunity.

At the State Board of Education, he already has, selecting members who could bring real change to the way public schools are governed – and their mission. Maryland, where public schools are usually rated among the best in the country, could suddenly find itself at the vanguard of the national school privatization movement.

Consider Hogan’s appointments to date:

--Andrew Smarick, a former U.S. Department of Education official under President George W. Bush, who was an education adviser to Ehrlich and a former deputy education commissioner in New Jersey under Gov. Chris Christie (R). Smarick, who works for a consulting firm called Bellwether Education Partners, is not just a player in the corporate-led reform effort to overhaul public schools and a big advocate for charter schools – he has also suggested that failing public schools be forced to declare the equivalency of bankruptcy – and eventually shutter their doors.

“After undergoing improvement efforts, a struggling private firm that continues to lose money will close, get taken over, or go bankrupt,” Smarick wrote in a 2010 essay. “…Urban school districts, at long last, need an equivalent.”

--Chester Finn is a former assistant secretary of Education under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush who is the president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and is connected with the equally conservative Hoover Institute in California. He is also associated with the charter schools movement, and is a founding partner of the Edison Project, a for-profit schools management organization.

--Stephanie Iszard is the principal of the Cornerstone Christian Academy, a private elementary school in Bowie.

--Laura Weeldreyer was, until, recently, the head of the office of new charter schools in Baltimore city.

--Michele Jenkins Guyton is a psychologist who works with at-risk kids. She is the mother of three boys with various disabilities, including Tourette Syndrome, and is a special education advocate.

If 2014 had been a normal election year in Maryland – and we’re talking calendar here, not results – Hogan would only have had three appointments to the school board this year, instead of five. But under state law, a lame-duck governor cannot make appointments after the state primaries.

If the state’s 2014 primary had been in September, as it traditionally is, instead of in June, former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) would have had two final appointments to make to the state board. But the legislature did not adjust the lame-duck appointment calendar when it set the early primary date.

As it happens, one of O’Malley’s appointees – former Rockville Mayor Larry Giammo – has also been associated with the school privatization movement. He is a former managing director of an outfit called the Matrix Knowledge Group, which, according to The Progressive magazine, is “a major player in the move toward the privatization of public education and the commodification of ‘policy knowledge.’”

The terms of three O’Malley appointees to the school board – including Giammo – expire in 2016, so Hogan will have the opportunity to replace them and put his full stamp on education policy in the state. With so many ideological fights looming in Annapolis over the next three years, will anyone pay adequate attention? 

(Disclosure: My wife is a public school teacher in Prince George’s County.) 

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.