Dan Cox is courting voters who were frustrated by pandemic-era restrictions in their children’s schools, and picked a running mate who’s a conservative grassroots organizer behind the departure of a county school superintendent over her support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Wes Moore has pledged to work with a broad section of organizations, including the state teachers’ union, and promises full funding for Maryland’s landmark educational reform and other initiatives. He chose as his campaign’s chief of staff a former principal and seasoned Baltimore City administrator with strong ties to the city school system.
The two nominees are competing with vastly different education platforms in a state that’s home to more than 882,000 public school students.
The new governor will inherit problems in education brought on or worsened by the pandemic. Schools are facing enrollment declines and teacher shortages, while standardized test scores have dropped and some students are displaying emotional or behavioral issues.
At the same time, schools are beginning to receive a major infusion of cash, thanks to the state’s education reform plan, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. It increases education funding to $3.8 billion over the next 10 years.
Moore is the Democratic nominee in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans about 2-to-1 and where Republican President Donald Trump lost by 33 percentage points in 2020. Moore said his education platform hinges on collaboration.
“My leadership style is that everybody needs to be heard and everybody needs to be seen in these conversations,” he said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.
In addition to the Blueprint funding, Moore promises additional increases for school construction, educator wages, after-school programs, tutoring, child care and early childhood education. He’s pledged to reinstate a state Commission on the School-to-Prison Pipeline and the Governor’s Office for Children, which Republican Gov. Larry Hogan folded into the Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victims Services. And he said he’ll meet with regularly as governor with the teachers’ union, which endorsed him.
Cox, the Republican nominee, is by contrast appealing directly to parents disgruntled by government decisions impacting schools.
“Here’s what parents are telling me: they’re angry and they’re tired of the radical left using their children as social experiments,” Cox says in a video on his campaign website.
He calls his education platform, which promotes school choice, “Defending Parental Rights.”
He’s fought to forbid schools from teaching children in kindergarten through third grade about gender identity, calling it “indoctrination.” He wants to ban critical race theory, a term for an academic framework around the idea of institutional racism. It isn’t taught in Maryland public schools, but the phrase has become shorthand in some conservative circles for topics concerning racism and the history of slavery in the U.S.
Cox says he would expand school choice. He wants to increase funding for Maryland’s BOOST program, which provides low-income families with scholarships to attend nonpublic schools. He would appoint more parents to the State Board of Education, which consists of 13 regular members and one student member, all appointed by the governor.
“My approach to greater involved parents, community schooling and school choice options greatly contrasts with my opponent’s approach, which is all about centralization of education,” he said in an interview with The Sun.
“Different schools and different localities need to have more authority for tailoring curriculum to the needs of their communities,” he said.
Cox worked as a teacher for years with Wellspring Christian Family Schools, a private home-school program.
While criticizing the state teachers union, he’s quick to say he aligns with educators on topics like pay.
“My candidacy reflects more of the life of most Marylanders,” he said. “We don’t really care anymore about party, and I’m included.”
Moore called his opponent’s education platform “dangerous” and “divisive,” adding that he believes Cox is attempting to bring a Trump agenda to Maryland.
“He’s an ideologue,” Moore said.
Cox has the support of Trump and supported Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. He attended a pro-Trump rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, but said he did not go to the U.S. Capitol, where a riot turned deadly.
What the governor can and can’t do
Maryland’s governor does not directly oversee the state education department, but appoints members to the state school board, can approve or block educational spending plans, and can issue executive orders that directly impact schools.
Hogan’s administration used these powers to significant effect on public education. Spokesman Michael Ricci touted several educational initiatives in an email Monday as accomplishments, including starting a taxpayer-funded voucher program for students from low-income families to attend private schools, supporting a bipartisan funding plan for school construction projects and investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives.
Hogan also waded into high-profile debates in education. When state legislators in Annapolis and elected and educational leaders in the Baltimore region considered in 2016 how best to address a lack of air conditioning in aging school buildings, the governor signed several executive orders delaying the start of the school year.
He also vetoed the Blueprint educational reform package as too costly. The veto was overturned by the General Assembly, but ultimately delayed the plan’s rollout.
Ricci identified accountability in K-12 education spending as a struggle for the administration, but pointed to the establishment of an inspector general for education as an accomplishment. The office was established in 2019 and has published several reports critical of school systems, including system in Baltimore City.
Both Cox and Moore expressed concerns about Baltimore City schools, in particular, noting how students and staff at some buildings were unable to use tap water for most of a recent week because of contamination and others have been sent home early because it’s too hot inside their schools.
Campaign attracts education heavy hitters
The governor’s race has attracted big names in Maryland education, including a former Baltimore City administrator and city schools executive, as well as a conservative parent who pushed out her county’s superintendent for declaring that Black Lives Matter.
Tisha Edwards stepped down a year ago from her role leading Baltimore City’s Office of Children and Family Success to join Moore’s campaign as chief of staff. Edwards worked as a public school principal before rising to chief of staff of Baltimore City schools under schools CEO Andres Alonso. She later served as interim CEO for about a year.
Moore said he gravitated toward her because she has “devoted her entire life to supporting children.”
“Our campaign put a real focus on making sure that education was centered,” he said. “It wasn’t an accident and I think people should pay attention to that.”
That focus helped Moore secure the endorsement of the teachers’ union, which supports its chosen candidates by offering volunteers to knock on doors, call and text potential voters, and distribute information about policy plans and public records.
“Once we recommend a candidate, we do all that we can [to] help them win,” said Samantha Zwerling, head of the union’s political and legislative affairs, in an email.
Cox has found strong allies among those with ties to grassroots efforts to shape public education, including running mate Gordana Schifanelli. She is an attorney and former adjunct professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.
She made headlines in 2020 for pushing out Queen Anne’s County’s first Black superintendent, Andrea Kane, after Kane voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement in an email to parents. Schifanelli and her husband later toured the state, speaking at local conservative functions about how to replicate their success.
On the campaign trail, Schifanelli attracts parents disgruntled with pandemic-era school mandates and closures, many of which have since lifted.
Cox said he met with several people who expressed an interest in running a joint campaign for lieutenant governor.
“Gordana specifically stood out as someone who, although she’s not a politician, is polished and able to lead on some of these issues, particularly education,” he said. “And she demonstrated that she had already stepped up as what we jokingly call a ‘Mama Bear.’”
Schifanelli declined an interview with The Sun, but said in an email Wednesday that she believes her ability to relate to parents and children helped the ticket win the Republican nomination.
“The children are used for nefarious purposes and I am horrified for our future,” she wrote in the email.
What voters say
Voters say they are reviewing the candidates’ platforms closely.
Digital Harbor High School teacher Angela Wesneski visited both Moore and Cox campaign websites and settled on voting for Moore. The 25-year-old Democrat worried that Cox’s school choice plan would siphon money from public schools at a time of staffing shortages.
“With everything happening in our world right now, we need to focus on keeping teachers in the classroom,” Wesneski said. “We can debate about specific things that are discussed or not discussed in the classroom all day. But if there aren’t teachers, none of it matters.”
Wesneski, who is studying to become a librarian, said she is concerned about politicians’ attempts to restrict access to information, books or educational materials.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Cox on Wednesday called for one of his opponent’s books, “The Other Wes Moore,” to be removed from school reading lists in the state. A back cover synopsis of some editions said Moore was born in Baltimore, an error Moore has said he flagged for the publisher to correct before publication. Random House has said that correction was missed and Moore pointed out the error again last year, after which it “corrected all subsequent print runs.” Cox said school districts that use the books are promoting a lie.
“Increasing access to information is a core value of mine,” Wesneski said. “I appreciate that we all love our kids, but decreasing access to information is never a way that results in children learning and growing into more kind, thoughtful people.”
Other voters like Frank Nice, a Republican from Montgomery County, say they see that with Democrats’ influence in the General Assembly in Annapolis, a Gov. Cox would face an uphill battle.
“I don’t think [Cox] is going to have the same impact,” Nice said.
The 77-year-old aligns more closely with the Republican nominee, but worries bipartisan collaboration and political compromise are harder to come by these days.
“I think Dan Cox is coming from far too right and Wes Moore is coming from far too left and they’re not going to meet in between,” Nice said. “That’s probably where most voters are, somewhere in the middle.”
This is the second in a series of articles about issues of importance to Maryland voters and facing the next governor.
An earlier version of this story misstated how much education funding would increase over the next 10 years due to an error on the Maryland State Department of Education's website. Education funding will increase to $3.8B over the next 10 years. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.