Education: Democrats running for governor say it's the top issue for voters

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The Democratic candidates for governor are gambling on education this year, making it their top priority and promoting ideas that just four years ago might have seemed left wing.

They would spend billions more each year on public schools, offer more support services in high poverty schools, provide pre-kindergarten for all children and make at least the first two years of college free.

The seven major candidates running in the June 26 primary have so much in common in their education platforms that the differences are razor thin. Many of the proposals are based primarily on the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission which is studying how to improve Maryland’s public schools. What they differ on is how much money will be needed and how to pay for all the initiatives they want to put in place — though none offers a detailed plan for coming up with the revenue.

Their bet is part of a political calculation that says Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s record has been flawed, and that voters will blame him for problems they see in their schools.

“Education will be his Achilles’ heel,” says candidate Krish Vignarajah, a lawyer and former policy director for Michelle Obama.

After a statewide listening campaign, Democratic party leaders say voters told them their priority is education. “Marylanders are anxious that our schools are slipping and students have been shortchanged by a governor who has allowed our public schools to drop in the national rankings every single year,” said Maryland Democratic Party Chair Kathleen Matthews.

So as they outline their education plans, the candidates to replace Hogan are drawing sharp distinctions between themselves and him.

The Democrats say Hogan has disparaged teachers by calling their leadership “union thugs.” They say he unfairly blamed the city school system for frozen pipes and malfunctioning furnaces when the state’s school construction program hampered jurisdictions that couldn’t pay for renovations up front.

Hogan’s executive order mandating schools start after Labor Day is an example of state interference in local decision making, says Richard Madaleno, a candidate for governor who has spent years in the Maryland Senate. “It is an outrageous political overreach,” Madaleno says.

Hogan touts a record level of funding for public schools during his term, but the Democrats contend he should have done far more. The state’s nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services says Hogan followed the legal requirements of the state’s school funding formula. And as enrollment went up, spending did, too.

In his first year in office, Hogan proposed a $68 million reduction in education funding and some years tried to hold inflation increases called for in the formula to 1 percent.

“They are free to believe whatever they want. But the governor’s record is incredibly clear. He has provided funding to the tune of $25 billion over the last four years,” says Doug Mayer, Hogan’s deputy campaign manager.

Mayer says education is Hogan’s top priority as well. The governor introduced a voucher program called BOOST that will provide $7.6 million in scholarships in the coming year to low-income students to attend private and religious schools.

Mayer notes that Hogan has supported a program called PTech that gives high school students internships with business. And he sought, unsuccessfully, an inspector general for schools to investigate allegations of wrongdoing. “There has been plenty of it,” Mayer says, referring to corruption in Baltimore County schools and grade changing in Prince George’s.

There’s disagreement on whether the Democrats’ education focus will pay off. Pollster Steve Raabe believes other issues are at the top of many people’s minds, including health care, transportation and jobs. “Other issues may be a little more motivating for some of the voters here in Maryland,” said Raabe, president of Annapolis-based OpinionWorks. “There is still a lot of economic stress even in two-income families.”

Rushern Baker, the Prince George’s County executive and one of the leading candidates, criticized Hogan for not being more engaged in education issues. Baker appointed a new school superintendent in Prince George’s and pushed for changes. Test scores and graduation rates improved, although the system suffered from a series of scandals including grade changing and increased salaries for central administrators that eventually forced the superintendent’s resignation.

“Education is the bloodiest sport there is,” Baker said. “It is hard to do and you can’t change your educational system in election cycles.” Despite the difficult road, he said, he is making education his highest priority because it is central to moving the state forward economically.

Ben Jealous, the former NAACP chief, would make public education free from the time students are in pre-kindergarten through the first two years of college. “There was a time when public education was only free to the eighth grade. We need to go up to the 14th grade,” he said.

Jealous would give teachers 29 percent raises over a period of years and legalize marijuana to help fund it.

Alec Ross would spend as much as $80 million in the next decade to make computer science and coding classes available at every school. His proposals include providing online Advanced Placement classes to students in areas where they aren’t offered. Madaleno wants to ensure that when students graduate they are on a clear academic or career path. Jim Shea is among the candidates who would give more support and money to schools in high poverty areas through after-school programs and community schools. Valerie Ervin, who recently entered the race after the death of Kevin Kamenetz, says she would like debt-free college, and universal child care and pre-kindergarten.

How they would pay for the proposals varies. Baker, for instance, says he would cut other items in the budget to focus on education. Madaleno says he’d turn to casino revenues and other savings.

On the issues

Learn more about the candidates and their positions in The Baltimore Sun’s Voter Guide. Visit elections.baltimoresun.com.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lizbowie

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