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‘We need more urgency’ Former U.S. secretary of education on fixing Baltimore City schools

2/28/2022 | Chris Papst

Fox 45

A former Secretary of the United States Department of Education says despite decades of failure, Baltimore City Schools can be fixed, but City leaders must treat the problem with urgency.

John King has spent his life in education. He can tell when a school system is struggling. He says, in Baltimore City, the consequences of a failing school system are dire.

“We’re setting up young people for a destination of poverty and despair,” King told Project Baltimore.

King says high levels of crime and violence have traumatized many students in Baltimore City. These issues impact their ability to learn. They don’t get the education they need for success, and the cycle begins again.

“You are setting up exactly the dynamic that produces the level of crime and violence that we see,” he said.

King, a Democrat, started as a teacher in Puerto Rico, and eventually became Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education during President Barack Obama’s administration. Now, he’s running for governor of Maryland with education as his primary focus.

King has watched recent Project Baltimore reports expose significant issues in Baltimore City Schools. In the last year, Project Baltimore uncovered an enrollment and grade changing scandal at Augusta Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts. Another report exposed heartbreaking data from Patterson High School, where 77% of the students tested, according to one assessment, are reading at an elementary school level. And Project Baltimore found 41% of Baltimore City high school students earned below a 1.0 grade point average in the first three quarters of last school year.

“We have to acknowledge the results are not where we want them to be, the data are in some cases tragic,” said King.

But Baltimore City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises has not interviewed with Project Baltimore in years. Neither has anyone from her administration.

“We need more urgency around it from City leadership and state leadership,” King told Project Baltimore.

He says, if elected, he’d make himself available to the media and would speak with Project Baltimore about education issues.

“Absolutely. Look, I was a high school civics teacher. I believe part of the role of public officials is to be transparent, and the media has an important role to play,” said King. “There’ll be tough questions and public officials need to answer those tough questions. It’s part of how the public can see what their leaders are doing and ultimately hold them accountable.”

King believes the answers to many of Maryland’s educational problems, lie in the Kirwan Plan. Also known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, Kirwan was passed in 2020 when Democrats overrode Governor Larry Hogan’s veto.

“Maryland used to have arguably, the best education system in the country, and now we’ve fallen more to the middle of the pack,” said King. “And so, the goal of the Blueprint is really to say, ‘What are the investments we need to make in our highest needs schools, in pre-K, in our teachers, in order to make sure that we are competitive?’ Not just with the best state systems in the country, but with the best countries in the world.”

Kirwan increases education spending, statewide, by more than $30 billion over the next 10 years and $4 billion every year after that. As governor, King says he would fully fund Kirwan, even if it means raising taxes.

“I think we have to be comfortable with raising taxes to make sure that our kids have the education they need,” King told Project Baltimore.

With the additional funding, Kirwan will increase teacher pay while expanding career training and pre-K programs. King said schools will receive more individual attention, like extra counselors and mental health services for students. There will also be a focus on early childhood literacy and creating community schools, which establish partnerships between local organizations and students.

The Kirwan plan also establishes the Accountability and Implementation Board, which increases state oversight of schools, and allows the state more control in how local school systems spend money.

“My message is, as governor, as an educator governor, I’ll make sure that we get the return on investment. That we are doing the things in our schools that we know work,” said King.

Maryland taxpayers have heard this before. Twenty years ago, the state passed the Thornton Plan, which pumped a lot more money into our schools. If you look at Maryland’s graduation rate it went up 14 percent, but the national average also went up about the same amount. That means more money was spent for about the same results.

John in school