The Democratic candidates all say they want to be the education governor. Who's really got the best plan?

In a race for governor where the Democratic candidates all appear to agree on most issues, there’s one that sharply divides them. Each of the seven major candidates believes he or she would be the “education governor,” and they all have their reasons why.

One is a former teacher who is married to a current one (author/entrepreneur Alec Ross). One is the daughter of two teachers and lays claim to being the only candidate to attend Maryland public schools K-12 (former Obama administration official Krish Vignarajah). One is the former chairman of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents (attorney Jim Shea). One is a former Montgomery County School Board member (Valerie Ervin). One fought in the legislature to take control of his local schools (Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker). One is the only candidate to serve on the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, aka the Kirwan Commission (state Sen. Richard Madaleno). One has the endorsement of the Maryland State Education Association (former NAACP CEO Ben Jealous).

There’s a lot of noise in this discussion that should be filtered out.

First, voters should hit the mental mute button when they hear a candidate explain that he or she will put casino money in a lockbox to fulfill the promise of using it to augment our education funding, not just cover the basic formulas. The General Assembly and Governor Hogan put the idea on the ballot this fall (a detail that often goes unmentioned), and it’s become a favorite talking point on the campaign trail. But the lockbox would mean cutting funding for other state priorities, plain and simple, and unless a candidate tells you what he or she is going to do to compensate for that money (which none of them are), it’s a hollow promise. Furthermore, what would it even mean to make the casino funds “extra”? Among Kirwan’s tasks is to set educational funding formulas to provide students throughout the state an opportunity for a world-class education. Are we supposed to allocate another half-billion dollars a year beyond that? For what?

Second, many of the candidates are seeking to go on the offensive against Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, arguing that he has allowed Maryland schools to slip by failing to make their funding the highest priority. There are arguments to be made about individual education-related programs here and there that have suffered under Mr. Hogan, but the truth is that the challenges we face today are much bigger than that. He has, with some minor exceptions, funded Maryland education at the level the state’s spending formulas require. Doing so has enabled him to claim record funding for K-12 education every year, but that’s beside the point, too. The idea that we used to be first in education and have slipped to sixth (as charted in Education Week’s annual rankings) is a canard. We are, in the Kirwan Commission’s estimation, a middle of the pack state in a middle of the pack country. Changing that is going to require a fundamental re-thinking of our education system — something all the major candidates (Mr. Hogan included) say they are committed to pursuing during the next four years.

Who is best equipped to do that?

Ms. Ervin has less well developed plans in this area (and most others) by virtue of her late entry into race after the death of her former running mate, Kevin Kamenetz. She has distinguished herself by arguing that Maryland already spends enough on schools but that it needs to reprioritize some of that funding to support community schools that provide a variety of social services and supports for students and their families. That’s important, but we need to do much more than that.

Mr. Baker highlights his willingness to take direct responsibility for Prince George’s schools in a way that other county executives do not. Since then, he says, enrollment declines have reversed, the dropout rate has declined, and teacher retention and test scores have gone up. But his record there is tarnished by a series of scandals in the Prince George’s schools, including unauthorized pay raises for district central office staff and graduation rate fraud.

Mr. Shea is probably the most dogged among the candidates in seeking to tarnish Governor Hogan’s record on education, for example, pointing out that growth in education spending has lagged slightly behind growth in general government spending in recent years, a situation he pledges to reverse. Like the others, Mr. Shea subscribes to the policy prescriptions of the Kirwan Commission in terms of providing more resources for early childhood education, elevating the status of the teaching profession and the quality of teachers, ensuring that a high school diploma signifies college or career readiness and embracing new accountability measures. His emphasis on summer and after-school learning opportunities for disadvantaged students is important.

If you’re looking for the candidate who’s most fluent in the issues raised by Kirwan and the context of how they’ll play out in the General Assembly, that’s Senator Madaleno. He not only serves on the commission but has been at the center of debates about education policy and, particularly, funding during his General Assembly career. He knows far better than the other candidates what’s going to be easy to pass and what will be controversial. That sense of what’s possible might hurt him in the campaign (he is less apt than other candidates to make big promises and instead focuses on his record of accomplishment) but it would certainly help him if he is elected governor.

Those concerned about school safety should consider Ms. Vignarajah. In addition to highlighting Kirwan-related ideas, she has an extensive set of policy proposals for keeping kids out of harm’s way, ranging from the design of school buildings to a greater emphasis on mental health. She displays a holistic understanding of the issue, connecting it with bullying (online and in person), inadequate gun laws, outmoded technology and poor coordination between school officials and police. Separately, she suggests that Maryland consider issuing social impact bonds so the state can pay over time for programs with high long-term returns on investment, such as early childhood education. It’s an idea worth exploring.

Mr. Jealous offers the most specifics in terms of what he’s promising and how he would pay for it. He pledges to give teachers a 29 percent raise over four years (did we mention the teachers union endorsement?) and has done the math to figure out exactly what it would cost. He would pay for universal pre-K by legalizing recreational use of marijuana by adults. Recognizing the significant ramp-up time to full Kirwan funding, Mr. Jealous says he would direct initial increased allocations to schools with a higher degree of socio-economic need and add supports for more affluent schools later. He also provides a strong set of ideas related to students with special needs and for providing more mental health services in schools.

But edging him out for the most comprehensive and far-reaching set of education proposals is Mr. Ross, a former Baltimore City middle school teacher. His best known education promise is universal computer coding classes for all public school students, but that’s not the only way he goes beyond Kirwan. He includes proposals for reforming the school construction process in Maryland to improve equity; gifted and talented programs in underserved communities; improving the quality of child care (pre-pre-K, if you will); online access to AP, foreign language and advanced science, technology, engineering and math classes for rural communities; and merit pay for teachers. Mr. Ross is not unique in his focus on apprenticeships and vocational training, but his vision for the role they can play in creating a 21st century workforce is the most thoroughly developed.

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