MD is Not VA: Education Issues Playing Out Differently in Governor’s Race

A Trump-endorsed Republican has sought to use flashpoint K-12 issues to his advantage, taking a cue from other GOP victories — but it’s not working

Maryland Democratic candidate Wes Moore and GOP candidate Dan Cox (Getty Images)

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Updated, Nov. 9

Democrat Wes Moore cruised to a 22-point victory over Republican candidate Dan Cox. He will become Maryland’s first Black governor. In an election night interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, the governor-elect touted “big things” in store for Maryland, including “offer[ing] a service year option for every single high school graduate.”

Throughout the Maryland gubernatorial race, GOP candidate Dan Cox has done his best to keep education culture wars issues front and center. 

The state legislator named a right-wing parent leader as his running mate after her group lobbied to remove a Queen Anne’s County schools superintendent who expressed support for Black Lives Matter. And in his only public debate against Democratic challenger Wes Moore, the Trump-endorsed candidate railed against “transgender indoctrination in kindergarten,” a problem he blamed on books that “depict things that I cannot show you on television, it’s so disgusting.”

The approach takes its cue from several recent GOP campaigns, most notably that of Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The Republican’s 2021 win over high-profile Democrat and former governor Terry McAuliffe was propelled largely by controversy over K-12 curricula and COVID school closures, said University of Maryland political science professor Michael Hanmer.

“You don’t have to go too far to see what happened in the Virginia governor’s race. There, education was a really big deal,” the professor said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cox campaign was trying to leverage some of the same themes that the Youngkin campaign was able to.”

But so far the strategy has not traveled well across state lines.

As of late September, Moore led Cox by a 2-to-1 margin with a 32-percentage point advantage, according to a poll of 810 registered voters carried out by the University of Maryland and The Washington Post.

“The times are different, the candidates are different and there’s a lot of differences between Maryland and Virginia,” said Hanmer, whose Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement co-sponsored the poll. “It’s a really steep climb for Cox.”

Maryland state Delegate Dan Cox has prominently touted his endorsement from former President Donald Trump. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Democratic candidate Wes Moore is a Rhodes Scholar, combat veteran, anti-poverty advocate and best-selling author. Sporting an endorsement from the state’s largest teachers union, he says he plans to boost educator pay, reduce the number of youth that schools send into the criminal justice system and fund tutoring initiatives to help students recoup learning they missed during COVID.

In their Oct. 12 debate, following Cox’s attack on what he called queer “indoctrination” in schools, Moore locked eyes with the camera and delivered an alternate message.

“I want to say to all of our LGBTQ youth and families, I see you and I hear you and all policies that will be made will be made in partnership,” he said.

On the issues

Nearly a quarter of Republican voters say they plan to cross the aisle and cast their ballot for Moore, which could prove a death blow for Cox in a state where there are already twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.

Among the Frederick County lawmaker’s GOP opponents is the state’s popular term-limited incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan, who has repeatedly called Cox a “QAnon whack job” and “nut job.”

Cox did not respond to requests for comment, but his running mate Gordana Schifanelli said public opinion surveys do not phase their campaign.

“I am not paying attention to the polls, which are very biased and steered towards narratives some people want to promote,” she said in an email.

In a race that “revolves around people/parents who are very concerned about education,” she said the GOP ticket is advocating a pivot away from “BLM [Black Lives Matter] curriculum and equity outcomes” in schools. Instead, “turning back to basics: logic, foreign languages and, yes, cursive writing.”

sharlimar douglass, leader of the Maryland Alliance for Racial Equity in Education who does not capitalize her name, doubts whether Cox’s and Schifanelli’s “parental rights” agenda includes the rights of Black families like hers.

“This whole piece about the ‘parents’ rights’ to me falls into what we’ve seen nationally, like white parents’ fear and people not wanting children to learn the true history,” she said.

The lieutenant governor candidate dismissed the criticism.

“This is not about Black or white,” she said, explaining she does not oppose kids learning about slavery but rather the “political push to segregate children into oppressors, oppressed and depressed.”

Moore’s education agenda largely steers clear of curricular concerns around race and gender, focusing instead on policy issues like addressing the state’s teacher shortage and expanding access to early childhood education. 

“We are going to … honor the people who fight for our kids — teachers, administrators, custodial workers, cafeteria workers — the people who make our schools places where children can thrive,” Moore said in a statement emailed to The 74.

He also says he plans to reduce the racial wealth gap by creating $3,200 savings bonds for every Maryland baby born on Medicaid, lifting the prospects of children who are disproportionately Black and Latino. He has not said how he plans to pay for the roughly $100 million-a-year program.

Democratic candidate Wes Moore at a Baltimore food distribution center in September. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Democratic candidate’s campaign has not been without setbacks. In early October, the Baltimore Brew reported Moore’s Baltimore home had an unpaid water and sewage bill of over $21,000, which was then paid off within hours of the story’s publication. And details regarding his Baltimore roots presented in his 2010 memoir have been called into question.

However, if those issues don’t dissuade voters and Moore cruises to victory, not only will it be his first time in elected office, he also would become the Old Line State’s first governor of color and quite possibly the nation’s only Black governor following the midterms.

Investing in education: Maryland’s Blueprint

Moore has promised to fully fund the Blueprint For Maryland’s Future, landmark legislation that, when fully implemented in 2032, will infuse an additional $4 billion annually to help schools in the state boost achievement and close equity gaps. 

“My opponent is a danger to our state. His plans would certainly defund our schools, and I’m going to do the opposite by ensuring that every Marylander has access to a world-class education,” Moore said.

Robert Ruffins, who has advocated for the Blueprint for years as assistant director of state advocacy at EdTrust, said there are “incredibly high stakes” for education in this gubernatorial election because the implementation of the 10-year plan could hinge on whether it sees support from the state’s top officeholder. In Maryland, he explained, the governor has broad power over funding levels because they put forward the state’s working yearly budget.

“The governor being committed to the Blueprint, and to the funding of the Blueprint, and to being a partner in having it implemented properly is going to be absolutely critical to our success,” added William Kriwan, who chaired the legislative commission that crafted the policy and is now vice president of the board responsible for overseeing its rollout.

As a member of the House of Delegates in 2020, Cox voted against the legislation. Even so, it passed with bipartisan support.

But while the Maryland policymakers orchestrating the Blueprint’s implementation have their eyes on plans a decade or more out, the Democratic governor hopeful said he’s focused on what happens between now and Nov. 8.

“We’re not taking anything for granted and will continue to run as if we’re 10 points behind,” Moore said.

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