Maryland Democrats seeking to unseat a popular Republican governor are staking a claim on education issues, which polls and experts suggest could be a vulnerability for incumbent Larry Hogan.
In a field of seven major candidates, most have called for more money for education, more seats in prekindergarten and more programs for students to attend college without debt.
They have rolled out proposals on computer science education, school security, career preparation and teacher pay. But they also have made it personal, talking about their connections to public education.
“For Democrats, education is one glimmer of hope,” said Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “There are some cracks in the Hogan record that could be exploited.”
But challenging him is no easy task: Hogan has an enviable approval rating of 71 percent, according to a June Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.
Education is an exception. Forty percent of likely voters don’t approve of the governor’s handling of the issue, while 43 percent do, a split not seen on the economy, taxes or transportation. Just last year, Hogan drew higher marks on education, with a 17-point positive margin. He is at the lowest point of his term on the issue.
The candidates accuse Hogan of doing little to improve public education during his four years in office, falling short on funding increases and focusing on an issue that did not benefit learning: a tourism-minded mandate that schools not open until after Labor Day.
Most want to boost funding for education, and several said they would take an education-first approach, allotting money to schools before other priorities.
Their ideas for covering the extra cost of new initiatives include tapping proceeds from economic growth, casino gambling, sports betting and taxes related to the potential legalization of marijuana.
Political analysts said education is typically a strong issue for Democrats, while Republicans poll better on taxes and the economy.
Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said Hogan appears to have lost ground on education amid a chorus of criticism from Democrats.
“All the bits and pieces that candidates are saying about the education challenges in Maryland have sort of filtered into everyday conversations that people are having,” he said.
But the ranking, which comes from a yearly analysis done by Education Week, is not quite what it seems. The publication shifted its criteria in 2015. And while the state has notched down each year since, the calculation relies on test results and funding data largely from 2015 or earlier, said Sterling Lloyd, an assistant research director for Ed Week. Hogan started his term in 2015.
Hogan’s campaign defends his record on education, which spokesman Doug Mayer called the top issue for the governor, too. “There’s some great schools in Maryland, and some schools that need help, and the governor is focused on closing that gap,” he said.
Hogan has provided record funding for education four years in a row, Mayer said, while pressing for more accountability in local school systems and supporting efforts to steer proceeds from casino gambling to education.
Hogan’s order to delay the start of classes until after Labor Day, Mayer said, was “a return to common sense” scheduling and supported by most Marylanders. Other Hogan efforts include more investment in school security, computer science standards and schools that partner with businesses to create a pathway to jobs that pay well, Mayer said.
The state will spend $5.8 billion on education next year, but critics say that merely reflects required funding formulas and is not adequate for ensuring that students succeed according to the more rigorous state standards of recent years. They also note that early on, Hogan did not fully fund a program that gives more money to school systems facing higher costs for education, cutting it by $68 million.
Mayer points out that the governor has steered an extra $55 million into other education initiatives during the past three years.
Lawmakers and Hogan this year moved to make community college free for recent high school graduates from families earning less than $150,000 a year. Some Democratic candidates want to help even more students graduate from community colleges and four-year public universities without debt.
Most candidates embrace the work of the state’s Kirwan commission, which is charting the future course for K-12 schools, and note a consultant’s 2016 finding that the state should ultimately spend $1.9 billion more a year on education.
Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a longtime state senator from Montgomery County who sits on the Kirwan commission, said implementing the panel’s recommendations — including early education efforts, career readiness programs and improvements in teacher pay and training — would be his priority. “It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform our schools and to position ourselves to compete with the best in the world,” he said.
Candidate Jim Shea, an attorney and former chairman of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, touched on similar themes, including the idea that spending and changes in policy need to go hand in hand. He supports after-school and summer programs that give disadvantaged students time to catch up.
“If you cherry-pick, you don’t get the full thrust of what you need, and the best-performing systems around the world have all the building blocks,” he said.
Several candidates said the most critical difference between them was the ability to deliver on the issues.
Shea cited his experience leading the university board.
Madaleno said his leadership in statewide education policymaking is key.
Ben Jealous, former president of the NAACP, noted his endorsement by the 74,000-member statewide teachers union. “They trust me to have the courage and the capability to actually fully fund education,” he said.
Jealous has proposed a striking 29 percent pay increase for teachers over seven years — paid for with proceeds from casino gambling and by closing a corporate tax loophole — and the creation of a work-study program that would pay students at the state’s four-year public colleges the equivalent of their tuition so they graduate debt-free.
At community colleges, he is calling for free tuition for Maryland high school graduates — using a 1 percent tax on the top 1 percent of earners and savings from reducing the prison population by 30 percent.
The Post-U.-Md. poll suggests that tuition assistance is popular. Nearly 8 in 10 registered voters supported the law that covers tuition at Maryland community colleges for some recent graduates, while 58 percent support free tuition at public colleges and universities, at a higher annual cost to the state.
Democratic hopeful Rushern L. Baker III, county executive in Prince George’s, cited his takeover of the schools in the county — a move approved by the legislature — as proof of his devotion to education.
“No one running has dealt with education more than I have, in a complex system,” he said.
Baker recently released a 10-point plan on education that touched on career programs, early education, curricula and college affordability. It proposed a network to provide access to mental-health services at schools and an effort to provide some family services at low-performing schools.
For Baker, however, education may cut both ways.
The school system he sought to elevate was hit with scandals over improperly awarded diplomas, outsize pay raises for high-level aides and the collapse of a federal Head Start grant. Baker handpicked its embattled chief executive and stood by him as problems mounted.
Some analysts said the problems in Prince George’s would be hard for Baker to shake if he were Hogan’s rival in the general election.
“If he gets the nomination, I think Democrats lose the advantage on education,” Eberly said.
Others assert that Baker’s work on schools shows a willingness to address tough problems.
Candidate Valerie Ervin, a former Montgomery County Council member and school board member, supports early education initiatives and special academic programs in community schools and notes her long work in education policy. But she parts ways with her opponents on some issues, saying Maryland needs to focus on “the root causes” of why children don’t succeed in school.
“Even though many of my opponents want to beat the drum about more money, more money, more money, I would like to know how much of that money is actually going into the classroom,” she said.
Candidate Krishanti Vignarajah, a former policy director for Michelle Obama, tells audiences she attended Maryland public schools from kindergarten through graduation. Her priorities include full funding of education and universal prekindergarten, along with improvements to school security and investment in historically black colleges and universities.
“For me, education is the building block of everything else,” she said.
Alec Ross, a tech entrepreneur and former Baltimore teacher, pointed to his classroom experience as the most important work of his life. He called for universal computer science education, a “world-class” student apprenticeship program and gifted-and-talented offerings in high-need communities. He pledged that as governor, he would make funding education his priority. “Everything has to follow from that,” he said.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.