Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) started the first day of the school year Tuesday greeting arriving students at Waugh Chapel Elementary School in Odenton. Standard photo op stuff, perfect for a genial, popular governor.
But a couple of hours later, Hogan was digging into serious education policy and throwing some sharp elbows – another part of his political persona that could become even more evident if he wins a second term, as he is confidently expecting to.
Rebuffed by the Democratic legislature in his efforts to establish an independent inspector general for educational accountability earlier this year, Hogan announced Tuesday that he would do so himself. During a State House news conference, he signed an executive order creating an Office of Education Accountability, to be housed, for now in the Governor’s Office for Children.
“There is a persistent and alarming lack of accountability in the school systems in our state,” Hogan said.
Valerie Radomsky, a former Baltimore County teacher and education adviser to Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D), a close Hogan ally, will take the job.
“Valerie has the experience and the passion” for the position, Hogan said during the news conference, according to a Facebook livestream of the session provided by reporter Bryan P. Sears of The Daily Record.
The governor’s office said Radomsky will be responsible for analyzing, coordinating and providing recommendations on procurement, child abuse, neglect, safety, grading, graduation requirements, assessments, educational facilities and budgets. She also will develop criteria for investigating accusations of fraud, abuse, waste and unethical conduct in the state’s 24 school districts. The office will set up an anonymous electronic tip program to allow reporting of violations, which can be found at governor.maryland.gov/school-survey-form, beginning Sept. 12, when Radomsky starts her new job.
But the office will not have the ability to conduct full-blown investigations, issue subpoenas, conduct hearings or recommend prosecutions. So Hogan said that on the first day of the 2019 General Assembly session in mid-January, he will reintroduce the Accountability in Education Act to establish an Office of the State Education Inspector General within the Maryland State Department of Education. He did not bother to add, “if I am reelected” to his declaration.
Although similar legislation stalled during the 2018 session, Hogan expressed confidence that it would pass next year, following high-profile scandals over the past few years in the school systems in Baltimore, Prince George’s and Howard counties, among others. Hogan, who frequently touts his support of “bipartisan, common-sense legislation,” was notably more emphatic discussing school oversight.
“I think the legislature is going to pass a lot of things they were reluctant to pass before when we get back in January,” Hogan said. “I think we’re going to have a bully pulpit and a lot of people out there helping us push it through.”
Hogan in the past has cast aspersions on teachers unions, calling their operatives “thugs.” But as scandals have enveloped school leaders, Hogan has widened his criticism of the state’s education establishment, and frequently used the words “outraged” and “outrageous” during his news conference Tuesday.
“I think people all across the state are absolutely outraged at the lack of accountability [in the schools] and they’ll be pushing for this legislation and they will get it done,” he said. Lawmakers, he predicted, will “get a lot of pressure” from the voters to pass his legislation. “Taxpayers are going to demand it.”
Hogan also fumed about a measure the legislature passed in 2017 to comply with new federal accountability standards for education. He vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode it, putting into place what he called “an embarrassingly weak … plan” that ignored “meaningful reforms.”
Critics suggested Tuesday that Hogan’s executive order is unnecessary, because the state is already equipped to offer the same oversight of local school districts that the new office will – including a “fraud hotline” offered by the General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Audits for whistleblowers to report instances of waste, fraud and abuse in government.
“We’re not convinced that there’s a major gap that needs to be filled by a new initiative or a new office or a new watchdog,” said John R. Woolums, director of government relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, which opposed Hogan’s legislation earlier this year.
Woolums said local school leaders routinely work with state officials and are committed to being accountable to voters and taxpayers.
“We have a long, storied history in Maryland of independent state superintendent of education and state board of education oversight,” he said.
It was not lost on school officials that Hogan made his announcement on the first day of school – a busy, often chaotic day for administrators, teachers, parents and students – or that Hogan is trying to put another stamp on education policy through an executive order, like his edict that classes start after Labor Day. Renee McGuirk-Spence, executive director of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland, said her members weren’t given a heads-up by the Hogan administration about the new oversight office.
And politics were never far from the discussion.
Benjamin T. Jealous, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, blasted Hogan’s executive order.
“A political investigator run out of the governor’s office won’t change the fact that our schools are underfunded by billions of dollars and our teachers are underpaid,” he said. “As governor, I will fully fund our schools, not blame our hardworking teachers and support staff.”
Jealous used the first day of classes for his own political purposes, visiting two schools in Baltimore on Tuesday to tout his own education funding plan and to unveil a proposal to reimburse Maryland teachers when they shell out for school supplies. The plan would create a fund through a check-off on state tax returns giving taxpayers the option of dedicating a small portion of taxes to educator reimbursements.
Jealous and Hogan also are skirmishing over the fact that schools in Baltimore city and Baltimore County are closed and dismissing students early this week due to the extreme heat. Hogan and Franchot are sure to publicly excoriate local school officials for the closures when the Board of Public Works meets Wednesday in Annapolis.
Mileah K. Kromer, political science professor at Goucher College, said it’s smart for Hogan to emphasize school accountability.
A Goucher poll conducted in February, shortly after hundreds of Baltimore city students endured freezing conditions in their classrooms, found that 39 percent of voters said mismanagement of funds by city school administrators was to blame for the freezing classrooms, 24 percent blamed underfunding by the Maryland state government and 14 percent blamed underfunding by the Baltimore city government.
“I think people overall are concerned with government waste,” Kromer said.