Dem Gubernatorial Candidates Talk Education, Criminal Justice and Health Care at Anne Arundel County Forum

Former Obama administration official Ashwani Jain, Former Clinton administration official Jon Baron, former U.S Education Secretary John King, former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, entrepreneur Michael Rosenbaum and Comptroller Peter V. R. Franchot (D) discuss their policy positions at New Hope Faith Community Church Thursday evening. Photo by Hannah Gaskill.

Six of nine democratic gubernatorial candidates spoke at a forum hosted by the Anne Arundel County Democratic Party in Gambrills on Thursday evening.

Former Obama administration official Ashwani Jain, former Clinton administration official Jon Baron, former U.S. Department of Education Secretary John King, former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, entrepreneur Michael Rosenbaum, and Maryland Comptroller Peter V. R. Franchot (D) gathered at New Hope Faith Community Church to sell constituents their stances on education, criminal justice, health care and economic reform policy.

Education policy

All candidates were asked what they would do to ensure that the Kirwan Commission’s Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform policy “is implemented with fidelity.”

Franchot and King were also asked about their opinions on standardized testing.

Franchot: The comptroller is determined to eliminate standardized testing — or at least limiting it in Maryland classrooms as much as federal law will allow.

“We have a fetish for standardized tests in Maryland,” Franchot told forum moderators.

Rather, Franchot, who opposed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform legislation, places his bets on a shift in school curriculum that includes teacher buy-in, and offers students “skill and knowledge about the modern economy.”

Rosenbaum: Rosenbaum called the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future “the floor, not the goal,” and said that the state needs to “lean in” not just on the kids who attend college, but also those who go straight into the workforce.

“We need to start with the Blueprint and build from there,” he said.

Baker: Baker emphasized the need to ensure funding is available to enact the reform policies, as well as the wraparound services necessary to enact curriculum change.

King: The former U.S. Secretary of Education said that he’s “hopeful” about what the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future could mean for education in the state’s highest-need schools.

King said he sees standardized tests as a tool the federal government uses to ensure transparency in the education system and to make sure vulnerable populations, such as kids who speak English as a second language, don’t get lost in the shuffle.

“What the federal government is looking for is to make sure that we are serving all of our students well and that we’re being truthful about whether or not we’re serving our English learners, serving our students of color, serving our low-income students,” King said. “So the type of assessment is less the issue than actually making sure that we’re transparent about equity gaps in our schools.”

Baron: Baron stressed the need to ensure that appropriate funding to implement the Blueprint is available, but also pushed the idea that the state should implement educational programs that have shown positive results elsewhere, such as early elementary tutoring services and career training.

Jain: Rather than addressing the Blueprint reforms specifically, Jain emphasized “tangible next steps” the state could take in the short-term, like student debt forgiveness for teachers, school construction in low-income areas, investment in science, technology, engineering and math programs for middle school students and free public transportation to ensure that it isn’t a hassle for kids to get to school.

Police reform

Candidates were asked about their thoughts on sweeping police reform legislation passed by the General Assembly during the 2021 legislative session and how they feel about the fact that it did not eliminate qualified immunity for state and municipal employees.

Under Maryland’s current law, state employees — including law enforcement — are immune from civil liability for transgressions that violate the rights of others if the offending action is within the scope of their job description and was objectively reasonable, or done without malice or gross negligence.

Franchot: The comptroller pointed to community policing, or what he described as familiarity between residents and on-duty officers, as an answer to criminal justice reform woes. He did not address qualified immunity.

Rosenbaum: For Rosenbaum, crime reduction lies in economic opportunity and moving away from the status quo of using “incarceration as the only strategy” to deter crime.

“That’s crazy. It obviously doesn’t work,” Rosenbaum said. “We keep spending more money and we’re no more equitable and we’re no safer.”

“The reality is that unless we ensure a pathway of economic security for everyone, we will not be safe,” he continued.

Baker: Baker said that he has been against qualified immunity since he was in the legislature nearly two decades ago.

The former Prince George’s county executive, who served in the House of Delegates for nine years, said that the police reform package passed during the 2021 session is good, but that real reform happens where the boots are on the ground.

“I think what they did at the state is great — applaudable — but most of the issues are at the local level,” Baker said. “If you’re not working with the local police department … then you’re not touching where all the issues [are], so it takes the state and the counties and the city working together.”

King: King said that the answer lies not just in reforming the police, but how the state approaches public safety, as a whole.

“We are now asking the criminal justice system to respond to addiction rather than trying to treat folks; we ask the criminal justice system to respond to trauma rather than provide mental health services or adequate psychiatric beds in the state; we asked police officers to deal with someone in a mental health crisis, which really should be responded to with a social worker or counselor,” King said. “We have to rethink our approach.”

Baron: Barron said that he supports the reform legislation passed this year, but suggested that the state focus on tried-and-true training policy and strategies that have proven effective in other jurisdictions.

Jain: Jain stood firm in his position against qualified immunity.

“It makes no sense to have immunity if you do a bad job. It’s as plain and simple as that,” he said. “But I think it goes beyond that.”

Jain suggested that reform is best achieved holistically rather than taking a “piecemeal” approach. To him, that means enacting policies that would abolish cash bail, deploying mental health professionals rather than police for certain emergency calls, ending the school resource officer program in public schools and legalizing cannabis and expunging criminal records for those who have spent time behind bars during its prohibition.

“I think it’s … not only making sure that those who commit unlawful actions — kill Black and Brown people like it’s target practice — are held accountable, but it’s, again, looking at the entire system in a comprehensive and sustainable way,” Jain said. “That’s how we can stop having these same issues that … I’m sick and tired of hearing about every single election cycle.”

Health care

Candidates were asked if they were in favor of a single-payer health care system.

Franchot: While he did not directly address the question of single-payer health care, the comptroller expressed a desire to “significantly” expand Medicaid coverage.

Rosenbaum: Rosenbaum said that policymakers are having the wrong conversation: instead of continuously tweaking the same policy to make things better “here and there,” the entrepreneur focused on economic security.

“When we think about economic security, the amount of money we spend on health care actually creates an opportunity for us to think about, ‘How do we ensure economic security for everyone?’ because when I have a stable job, I have a roof over my head, I have a refrigerator, I have air conditioning, I have a primary care physician, that makes us healthier,” he said.

Baker: In short, yes, Baker supports a single-payer health care system.

“I supported it when I was a legislator. I support it now as part of our platform,” he said.

King: King said that the issue of a single-payer health care system should be left to the federal government and that the state should focus on more immediate fixes, like ensuring that undocumented residents aren’t denied health care because of a lack of insurance, or addressing deep-rooted racial disparities in medicine.

Baron: No, Baron does not support a single-payer system and believes that the Affordable Care Act “has worked very well in Maryland.”

To Baron, the real issue is cost.

“What we need in health care [is] to expand interventions — healthcare delivery innovations — that have been tested and shown to improve health and reduce costs,” he said.

Jain: A cancer survivor who works at a health care nonprofit, Jain worked on policy for the Affordable Care Act during his time with the Obama administration, he said. But he, like King, said he would turn his attention to more immediate, state-level fixes, like investing to expand health care access in underserved communities, looking at food insecurity across the state, addressing the opioid epidemic as a health crisis rather than a criminal justice issue and enshrining abortion access in the state constitution.

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