Competitors in this year’s crowded race for Maryland governor largely agree the pandemic magnified problems that were already pervasive in public education in the state. But the direction and focus of schools’ recovery efforts for the next four years may depend on who wins the race.
“We need to understand the phenomenon of triage,” said Democratic candidate Tom Perez. “If people aren’t in the right space, we’ll have learning loss and real despair.”
Maryland schools were among the last in the nation to reopen during the pandemic and reported significant declines in enrollment. Students returned to classrooms with behavioral challenges and schools struggled to fill widespread shortages of educators and bus drivers.
Marylanders indicated in a recent poll for Baltimore Sun Media and the University of Baltimore that education is a top concern this election cycle. And culture war debates over public health policies and educational content on American history — plus mass shootings in schools — have added layers of urgency for voters considering gubernatorial candidates ahead of the July 19 primary.
If education is among the most urgent issues for Maryland’s incoming governor, then the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future — a landmark education reform plan passed by the General Assembly in 2021 — could serve as a bellwether for understanding candidates’ approaches.
The Blueprint aims to overhaul public education and child care in Maryland over the next 10 years. State leaders and education advocates say if the plan is successful, Maryland students will rank among the best in the world.
And unlike other school systems around the country that face a funding cliff when federal and state COVID relief dollars eventually run out, Maryland schools are expecting an unprecedented influx of cash in the coming years thanks to the reform plan, which comes with a $3.8 billion annual price tag.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the Blueprint bill in 2020, citing its high cost amid the uncertain early days of the pandemic. The General Assembly overrode that veto the following session, but tangled with Hogan again this spring during state budget negotiations when the governor excluded some of the Blueprint’s funding for Baltimore City and Prince George’s County schools. That funding was later restored.
Will the Blueprint be funded?
The next governor’s willingness to support — or stall — the Blueprint plan and the work of its oversight committee in the coming years may have a significant impact on schools.
The race’s top Democrats — State Comptroller Peter Franchot, Wes Moore, Perez, Rushern Baker, John King and Doug Gansler — say they’re committed to funding the plan, with some pledging to expedite or expand key portions.
The fate of the Blueprint could look very different if a Republican wins the governor’s race. Leading candidate Kelly Schulz demurred when asked about funding the Blueprint, stating there would be “lots of time to talk about that.” Her closest rival, Del. Dan Cox, did not respond to an interview request and did not participate in The Baltimore Sun’s annual Voter Guide questionnaire.
Franchot said he is “very enthusiastic” over the plan’s recommendations, but admitted some skepticism toward the stability of Blueprint funding sources for the full decade. His platform includes several ideas that aim to ease the burden on teachers, including the creation of a “flex day” to plan lessons, prefunded expense accounts for educators to purchase supplies, and a 90% decrease in standardized testing in favor of project-based learning.
Baker, a former Prince George’s County executive, said schools will need more funding than what is promised in the Blueprint for things like broadband internet access.
And John King, a former U.S. education secretary in the Obama administration, is calling for tax reforms to ensure long-term funding for the Blueprint. He’s also looking to expedite phasing in a minimum starting salary of $60,000 for teachers by 2023.
The former high school teacher and principal said he is concerned educational support professionals, which includes people in jobs such as paraeducator, bus driver or custodial staff, are not making a living wage despite playing a crucial role. He’s also pledging investments in community colleges and Maryland’s four historically Black colleges and universities, which he said have been “engines of social mobility for generations.”
Perez pointed out the Blueprint was written before the pandemic intensified the need for student and educator mental health support. The former U.S. labor secretary and Democratic Party leader would use some of the state’s budget surplus to build out a robust mental health system in schools. And he is looking to increase per-pupil funding to address technology needs.
Moore, who nabbed the coveted endorsement of the Maryland teachers’ union, supports the Blueprint plan and wants to create a service year option for every high school graduate to work for the state in a variety of sectors, including the environment, housing, education or health. The program would help students test out possible career paths.
“Service is ‘sticky,’” Moore said. “Those who serve together … generally stay together. In this time of this hyperdivisiveness and this hypervitriol that we continue to see, I’m a big believer that service will help to save us.”
Some candidates touted their experience in government as crucial to the Blueprint’s implementation. Gansler, a former state attorney general, said the governor won’t need to start from scratch because the state committee that put together the Blueprint has already “done the heavy lifting.”
“Experience matters because it translates into an ability to … understand how the levers of government work and to get things done,” he said.
Republican views on curriculum, families’ choices
On the Republican side, Schulz was noncommittal on Blueprint funding, but indicated parts of the law are “just fine.”
She emphasized that school choice and public charter schools will force schools to live up to the expectations of parents and taxpayers.
Schulz’s platform on education appeals directly to parents disgruntled with state government’s handling of public education throughout the pandemic. Her first television ad of the year highlighted her “Parental Bill of Rights,” which aims to give parents an active role in education. It outlines several conservative strategies for public education, including a pledge to “keep schools open and kids in the classrooms,” as well as “no more top down” masking mandates.
Hogan took no formal action on masking in schools, but pressured the Maryland State Board of Education this winter to rescind its statewide masking requirement for systems.
Schulz’s plan also echoes conservative talking points around critical race theory without naming the legal concept that examines how racism is embedded in U.S. systems and policies. It’s not taught in Maryland public schools, but some conservative leaders have adopted the term CRT as shorthand for diversity efforts or other concepts they perceive to be racially or politically divisive.
Schulz’s platform promises to keep “partisan politics out of the classroom” and provide parents with transparency by posting K-12 curricula online. In an interview, Schulz said parents have expressed concern to her about critical race theory in schools.
“There’s a lot of things that people are calling it these days, and there are a lot of initials and there are a lot of complicated ways to describe it,” she said. “If there’s a very complicated topic of conversation that you and I are trying to figure out as adults, maybe that’s too confusing a topic for young kids.”
“Schools should be focusing on the things that parents want them to be focusing on,” she said. Topics that are still being debated among adults are not suitable for children in kindergarten through third grade, she said.
Cox, who received the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, plans to “remove CRT from public schools” if elected governor.
“CRT is Marxist propaganda and it has no place in our civil and free society,” Cox’s campaign website states. “I will also fight to restore local control of education and curriculum and will support parental rights in education.”
Ideas for making schools safer
Another issue at the forefront of candidates’ minds is school safety. The mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which killed 19 children and two adults, has brought another wave of public policy debates over how to disrupt gun violence across the country.
The Evening Sun
Cox and Schulz have called for more investments in policing or more school resource officers. However, Maryland’s Democratic candidates don’t fall as neatly along party lines on this issue.
Moore, a former member of the U.S. military, said he believes local jurisdictions should decide whether to deploy school resource officers. He is calling to reinstate a Maryland Commission on the School-to-Prison pipeline, restorative discipline policies and the removal of school resource officers from disciplinary decisions.
Gansler believes school resource officers are critical to prevention. He is also calling for a licensed mental health professional assigned to every 250 students.
“If you’re a parent, you deserve to know that when you drop your son or daughter off at their school, they’re going to be safe and that they’re not going to be shot,” Gansler said.
Perez said Maryland must expand school-based mental health infrastructure to address mass shootings — but also to support an overtaxed workforce. The candidate thought back to a teacher he met at a campaign event who said she was leaving the profession midyear due to burnout.
“We’re only as good as our human capital,” he said. “It broke my heart to listen to this person tell me why she quit, because I knew how passionate she was. I’ll keep calling her.”
This is the second in a series of articles about issues of vital importance to Maryland voters and facing the state’s next governor starting in 2023.