Six years ago, when I was a freshman member of the House of Delegates, I got a visit from one of Comptroller Peter Franchot's staff members. He was there to lobby me on an education-related bill the comptroller had been pushing. The goal was actually one I supported, but I didn't support the method he wanted to use to get there. I spent half an hour talking to his staffer about why Mr. Franchot's plan wasn't a good idea, drawing on my experience as a classroom teacher. Finally, after I'd countered every argument he had to offer, he looked at me and said, "But Eric, it polls really well." I politely ended the meeting.
There are two types of politicians. The first is perhaps best exemplified in John F. Kennedy's book "Profiles in Courage." It tells the story of leaders across the political spectrum and throughout American history who were willing to sacrifice their political careers to do the right thing. Like Sam Houston, who lost his seat as a senator for opposing further expansion of slavery and resigned as governor rather than join the Confederacy. We might call these courage-politicians, people who believe strongly in doing what's right, even if it hurts them politically. I serve with many of them in Annapolis, both Democrats and Republicans.
The other kind of politician is almost a caricature, the politician who will say or do anything to make himself or herself more popular. The panderer. This kind of politician ignores the fact that making good public policy is enormously complex. They avoid discussion of the unintended consequences of their actions. They dodge tough questions. And when people oppose them, rather than engaging them on the substance of the issue, they attack those who dare to stand up to them. For Gov. Larry Hogan, that means calling teachers thugs. For Peter Franchot, when he spoke in favor of the post-Labor Day start bill in my committee two years ago, it was claiming that only educational "elites" could oppose it. I happen to think Maryland's teachers are elite, but I'm pretty sure that the comptroller meant it in a different way than I do.
So the governor declared this week that he will issue an executive order requiring every school system in the state to start after Labor Day and end before June 15. And Comptroller Franchot was standing beside him cheering. Neither is willing to answer questions about the consequences. Tens of thousands of Maryland families will have to scrape together enough money for one or two more weeks of child care. As a teacher, I had students who would show up at the end of the summer skinnier — because they didn't get enough food over the summer — and like thousands of their peers they will have to wait longer to get the school breakfasts and lunches they rely on. Many kids, particularly kids whose families can't afford fancy summer camps and tutors, will have another two weeks to forget what they learned the previous school year, meaning they have to spend more time in review before learning new material. Spring breaks may disappear. And teachers will be scrambling to prepare kids for AP and high school graduation tests whose dates are fixed in the spring.
Even the method the governor used is problematic. Governor Hogan is unilaterally overriding the will of local school boards, PTAs, students and teachers who develop the calendars in their individual counties. Local control of schools is a basic American value that's been a guiding principle of American education since the first schools were started. Parents and teachers in Frederick and Cumberland and La Plata and Towson are much better placed to make decisions like these than one man in a mansion in Annapolis. And by doing it through an executive order, the governor is robbing the citizens of Maryland of the chance to weigh in on a major policy before it is enacted. He is circumventing the democratic process.
So with all of these reasonable concerns about a statewide mandate, why would the governor and the comptroller be pushing it? They've been pretty open about it. It polls well.
I've noticed that too. At first blush, many Marylanders like the idea of starting school after Labor Day, including a number of my constituents who have spoken to me about it. But Maryland voters are smart, and when they hear about the problems with such a shift, many of those constituents have changed their minds — because they care about the economic impacts on familiesor because they understand that it undermines our moral obligation to provide a good education to every kid, or because theysimply don't like the governor trying to take action without input from Marylanders.
I doubt that either the governor or comptroller will address these many concerns. Instead, they will probably demonize those who oppose them and hope that voters who at first blush like a post Labor Day start won't take a closer look. I suspect that I will be in for some attacks from them or their surrogates for writing this.
But Marylanders, all Marylanders, even those who strongly support starting school after Labor Day, should be concerned about this type of behavior. They should question whether they want political leaders who are more interested in being popular or doing the right thing. This isn't Dancing with the Stars, it's the state of Maryland. We have serious problems that require serious leaders who are willing to answer tough questions and deal with complicated issues.
We aren't seeing that from either Governor Hogan or Comptroller Franchot. If someone wrote a book about them, it wouldn't be called "Profiles in Courage." It would be called "Profiles in Pandering."
Eric Luedtke, a Democrat, is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates representing Montgomery County. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.