The vice president of the Maryland State Board of Education has resigned, slamming Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent executive orders that set the opening of school after Labor Day as not respecting the board’s independence and potentially putting students at academic risk.
S. James Gates Jr., a highly recognized physicist and professor at the University of Maryland in College Park who has served on the board since 2009, submitted his letter of resignation to Hogan during a state board meeting Tuesday night. It is effective immediately, a spokesman for the state department of education said.
“I do not now confidently work in an environment I perceive as supportive of education nor respects the independence of the board,” Gates wrote. “When I accepted to serve, it was my understanding the laws of Maryland were very clear about the independence and the authority of the State Board of Education with regard to policy in this domain. I agreed to serve under those conditions.”
Gates departs amid a period of turmoil for the board, which has been grappling with Hogan’s recent order that the state’s public schools must start after Labor Day and end by June 15. School districts opposed the action, saying it usurped local control of a quintessentially local matter: the school calendar. Educators said they worried that the new calendar decree could eat into academic preparation for students, and others said it flew in the face of efforts across the country to expand — not contract — the academic school year amid fears of summer learning loss.
Hogan (R) issued his order with a provision for school systems to seek waivers from the state. But when the state board appeared to be clearing a path for systems to get waivers and circumvent the edict, Hogan revised the order, significantly narrowing the kinds of circumstances that might qualify for an exception to his mandate.
Tuesday’s meeting of the state board was the first since Hogan revised his order.
Gates wrote in his resignation letter that Hogan’s order lacked any justification of its educational benefit to students and that the change could stem some students’ aspirations, such as those who are involved in dual-enrollment programs at two-year and four-year colleges.
“This executive order will likely put some of those dreams in jeopardy,” Gates wrote, noting that bad winter weather could lead to students not getting the full duration of their educational experience and thereby hurting subject mastery. “Students in the most at risk environments will likely suffer just as much, if not more debilitating effects from receiving reduced opportunity for learning. . . . Your executive order has the remarkable potential to damage both the most at risk and the most ambitious students in Maryland.”
Gates, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), has been a faculty member at U-Md. since 1984 and a teacher for 44 years. His son and daughter attended schools in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and went to U-Md.; both are pursuing PhDs, one at Duke and one at Harvard. He wrote that their experiences have driven his work on the board: “I have continuously thought about the thousands of Maryland students who were not born into positions similar to that of my twins. All children, independent of the wealth of their parents, deserve a fair chance to achieve their maximum potential and develop their talents.”
Gates declined to speak further Wednesday, but there was some hint of his dissatisfaction in the weeks before his resignation.
At the board’s September meeting, he expressed “great distress” that the independent board was “being directed directly from the governor’s office.” He said he recognized the governor as an important citizen, but added “that doesn’t mean that we simply have to become a rubber-stamp.”
After Gates resigned, his colleagues at the board meeting praised his service — one by one, many with emotion, commending his character and integrity.
Board member Madhu Sidhu thanked him at length, calling Hogan’s order “a real encroachment on our psyche and our purpose” and saying she was “almost where you are.”
Michelle J. Guyton, a Hogan appointee who joined the board last year, said afterward that Gates was an “amazing board member” and said he would be missed. “Big shoes to fill,” she said.
Board president Andy Smarick noted Gates’s intellect and kindness.
“He brings great experience and an enormous brain to this work, and he always treated every single person as well as you could imagine,” Smarick said. “He is a thoroughly decent man.”
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, thanked Gates for his “terrific work over the years” and wished him “the best of luck on all his future endeavors.” Mayer said the governor “looks forward to appointing a new school board member in his place.”
Asked to respond to Gates’s criticism of Hogan’s executive order, Mayer said: “Mr. Gates and all board members are entitled to their own opinions, misguided as they are, but that won’t prevent or hinder the governor from doing what is clearly right and what the vast majority of Marylanders want to see done.”
Several Democratic lawmakers have argued that the governor is developing bad policy based on opinion polls.
State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) called the Labor Day start order an “abuse of executive authority.” And the state’s Attorney General issued an opinion that said a court might rule that the governor overreached.
Mayer said Hogan was within his authority to order schools to start after Labor Day.
“Under the Constitution, he has the power to issue executive orders. It’s as simple as that,” Mayer said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the board passed a resolution pointing out that, under constitutional, statutory and judicial precedent, it is invested with “the last word on any matter concerning educational policy or the administration of the system of public education.”
“We wanted to go on record saying that the state board has had this authority for a long time and it’s important that the state board retains that authority,” Smarick said in an interview.
State Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), vice chairman of the Senate education committee, said Wednesday that the motion shows that Gates’s view “is shared by probably all of the board members, who are feeling dissed or dismissed” by Hogan’s order.
“It’s not just about the calendar,” Pinsky said. “It’s someone without education experience going to interfere in education policy for what appear to be political reasons. That’s the bigger concern. . . . Who’s to say the next [executive order] won’t be about what can be taught in school?”
Board Member Chester E. Finn Jr. said Gates’s departure is a loss and that the board wanted to emphasize its independence, but that it is also moving forward. “I have no reason to believe there is a continuing conflict with the governor,” he said, “and I hope we can work together on other issues facing Maryland education.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.