Parent Revolution: Maryland State Senator Bill Ferguson Comments

In response to “Parent Revolution: Straight Outta Compton,” Maryland state senator Bill Ferguson submitted this comment, on September 28 at 10:45 pm. I asked his permission to post it here, so it wouldn’t get buried in the comments section. He generously agreed:

“Thanks for bringing attention to the issue. I certainly understand your position.

But I think you’re taking a bit of liberty in generalizing and characterizing the groups affiliated (even remotely so) to parent empowerment efforts and their intentions. I am sure (although there’s no reason to take my word for it) that not a single person associated with DFER would ever claim to be the spokesperson for low-income communities of color. More importantly, I am sure there is not a single person associated with any of the foundations listed or amongst DFER or its supporters that would say that ineffective teachers are the sole cause of educational achievement gaps.

In fact, I’d imagine that nearly all of them would say that poverty and the struggles that are associated with poverty are the driving causes of the achievement gap. They’d also say that the risks associated with a poor education are significantly greater for children living in poverty than for children of families of means. That’s the point of contention.

Without hesitation, poverty and its externalities are leading causes of achievement gaps between socioeconomic cohorts. The single most effective vehicle for creating a path out of poverty, though, is through access to an excellent education. Safe housing options matter; effective & affordable health care plans matter; employment opportunities matter; sustainable wages matter; and the list continues. But public education is the arena where public dollar investments have the biggest impact. It’s why a number of well-intentioned people with money have started focusing on public education. They believe it will have the biggest return on philanthropic investment (and that’s investment and return in people, not in dollars). If we can create amazingly great schools for all communities, especially in low-income communities, we will have a better opportunity at leveling the playing field and setting the framework for allowing all kids the chance to excel. Do we have to work in the other areas as well? Absolutely.

I understand that it’s tempting to look at funders, find a commonality, and allow that commonality to drive a conclusion. I completely understand. But I believe it is unfair and unreasonable to paint someone as evil or ill-willed merely because he or she works in the financial sector; has created significant wealth used to start a foundation; or is willing to make political contributions to candidates.

The public education challenges that we have in Maryland, and across the country, are enormous. While I understand that many may disagree, I do not believe that educators and current parents of kids in schools alone will solve the problem. We need good ideas and good advocacy from all sectors in order to truly offer a new way for families that have faced generations of poverty. I believe that it will take people of significant means, non-traditional business leaders, ministers, journalists, artists, doctors, and many many more to truly move the needle on the achievement gap. Will every idea be good? Absolutely not. But some will be, and we need the diversity of resources from people of all backgrounds to address this gross inequity.

I urge you to take a second look at DFER. They are not anti-union, nor are they in any way anti-teacher. They believe that all kids should have access to a great education. They believe that teachers are not interchangeable widgets. And they believe that all kids can learn in the right environment. If you have a minute, here’s a blog entry that I found with a quick google search that touches on the subject: http://www.dfer.org/2011/02/dfer_on_wiscons.php.

One last, quick note of clarification, I did put in the Parent Empowerment Act during the 2011 Session, but I also withdrew it before any bill hearing took place. I believed that the problem had not clearly been defined in Maryland, nor was I sure that the mechanism I had drafted was the correct way to address it. So I withdrew the bill. Here’s the link to the bill status:http://mlis.state.md.us/2011rs/billfile/sb0776.htm

Bill Ferguson
billforbaltimore.com

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8 Responses to “Parent Revolution: Maryland State Senator Bill Ferguson Comments”

  1. @Melissa and others – just game along this project of job creation between Cleveland city government and the Cleveland Clinic: http://www.employmentconnection.us/en-US/clinic-partnership.aspx. What do you think?

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  2. Sen. Ferguson:

    I’d look to historical job creation programs for what worked. Certainly FDR’s creation of the Works Progress Administration (see also the CCC, NYA, TVA, and CWA) was a success. It put many (relatively unskilled) people to work in infrastructure projects. It also included adult education classes in reading, writing, basic math, some trades work. Maryland has *many* infrastructure projects from roads to bridges to school improvement to public facilities/parks improvement. Did the WPA cost a whole bunch of money? Yes, yes it did. Did FDR have huge deficit spending? Yes, yes he did. Did it work? A’yup. So, lobby up the food chain knowing full well it is an election cycle and nothing of any substance is likely to get done.

    Because I do understand that Maryland is not the federal government and cannot afford to institute such a program on its own, I’d ask that the state legislators think about our own state budget and what we do with (ever shrinking) state and federal dollars. Is Maryland really using the money it receives (again, dwindling, I know) via the Workforce Investment Act as efficiently as possible? The feds admitted in 2005 that little was know about training outcomes (http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05650.pdf) Do you have any audits on the dollars from this program? Are we targeting the dollars as research shows is best? I direct you to the very smart people here: http://www.mdrc.org/publications/532/presentation.html Looks to me like the Governor’s Board hasn’t met since March (http://www.gwib.maryland.gov/board/bdmeet/). In a time of economic crisis, should the folks on that board be meeting frequently to assess and re-assess success of programs?

    Is the legislature doing enough to support job retraining partnerships with community colleges? I ask about community colleges because I know of one such partnership in NoVA that has had very good outcomes (http://aspenwsi.org/NOVAOct2010.pdf) Do we have something similar in Maryland? If not, why not? And yes, an N of 1 does not a solution make but it is a start.

    Are you looking at expanding pre-K programs? That helps with job sustainability (less need for expensive out-of-home child care). Shouldn’t we have universal pre-K access? Couldn’t we try to start at 3? Plenty of other states start at 3 (http://nieer.org/yearbook/pdf/yearbook.pdf). If you think education is #1 and I think jobs are, let’s agree to disagree and fund programs like public preschool that help with both. A win-win!

    Again, I just dispute that “education matters just as much and maybe just a bit more.” I’m a mom to one 3.5 year old girl. I’m married to a prof who is the son of two teachers and the nephew of two more. Believe me when I say that I think education matters — I wouldn’t have spent vacation time running to different preschools to find one that I thought would be the right one for my kid.

    But then that anecdote sort of proves my point as well: I am a white collar worker with personal and annual leave. I can take time away from my job for parent-teacher conferences, to visit day programs, heck to respond *right now* I’m not unemployed and barely holding it together, a line worker, or a service worker on my feet all day. I’m not underemployed and worrying about paying for my kid’s asthma medication (over $100 a month for the inhaler my kid takes without insurance; yes we have MCHIP but we also have a waiting period to go with).

    Anyway, I’m monopolizing Edit’s blog (sorry Edit!) and I’m not a constituent (I’m in the 43d) so I appreciate your responding at all.

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    • @Melissa:

      This is really great information. I genuinely thank you for taking time to write back with ideas. I will honestly review these sites and docs this weekend.

      On a very quick note, it’s ironic that you mention pre-k. I literally am in the process of shopping a bill for next session that would pay for universal statewide prek for 4 year olds. The majority of new costs would be covered by allowing table games at the 5 existing (or theoretically existing) gambling sites in Maryland. Think… “poker for prek.” I don’t like gambling as a revenue generator, but if table games are coming regardless then I think the money should go towards early childhood education. Additionally, there is a donut hole when it comes to early childhood educational options. Wealthy families can afford high-quality child care. Poor families can access the public prek programs. Middle and working class families (where most households have 2 working parents) cannot afford high-quality childcare and don’t get to send children to public schools. Net result is low-quality childcare, extraordinary parents who make it work with high-quality child care, one parent unwillingly staying home, or a combination of all of the above. In short, I couldn’t agree with you more, we should have universal prek, and I hope I can get it passed this year.

      I’ll try to post the bill to Edit’s site when I get the draft back from the Department of Legislative Services. In the meantime, here’s a link to the bill I had drafted without the funding source: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1_loAsTGt6BPVIYoRzuIjZ7Cfxg8PyX0heQskSJYVJF0/edit. Here’s the draft of one stage of limiting the costs: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1hTS8XjepzKu6LSyNuRubvZKf8v_ehEQDNFcnYxilh9U/edit.

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  3. Just got a chance to see replies. Great stuff. I’m writing from my phone so this will be more brief than is deserving.

    Quick thoughts:

    – I think we’re disagreeing on verbage rather than substance. No question, jobs matter. They matter big time. I just believe that education matters just as much and maybe just a bit more. Regardless, we should be focusing on both.

    – Agree re: need for more progressive tax system.

    – @John: Please pass along examples, I’d very much love to take a look at the programs that are working. I’m not an ideological martyr, I’m for doing what works.

    – @Melissa: what jobs? Who creates those jobs? What programs sustain the jobs? I ask seriously, looking for ideas.

    – Agree

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  4. Sen. Ferguson: With all due respect, the data I’ve see (and I’m not a social scientist or economist) casts a good deal of doubt on education as *the* path out of poverty. If you look back a while, you’ll see writers in the NY Times (Herbert, The Mobility Myth, 6/6/05) and at the Center for American Progress (Understanding Mobility in America, 4/26/06) arguing that the single most important factor in avoiding poverty as an adult is not being born into a poor family.

    The US’ intergenerational social mobility is quite low. I won’t argue that education isn’t a major factor but it isn’t *the* factor. Far more important are social policies that keep families out of poverty. When you look at countries with the most social mobility (mostly Scandinavian), you see that they have very generous social policies in health, in housing, in transportation, in paid parental leave, in worker protections (very high union membership), generally strong protections of minorities, and in higher education (free or very low cost. Of course, unlike the US, they have a very progressive income tax structure and VAT. Despite the latter, most Scandinavian countries rank very high on the World Economic Index and competitiveness overall.

    In sum: Education is important. But not as important as (a) parent(s) income quartile. To truly improve the lives of Baltimore City kids, we have to make sure their parents/guardians are employed in jobs with sufficient worker protections that pay family-supporting wages. There is no panacea but perhaps employment could be regarded as a broad spectrum antibiotic in the fight against the ills that ail our city.

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  5. Thanks for personally replying. I would very much like to know the source for your claim that “The single most effective vehicle for creating a path out of poverty, though, is through access to an excellent education.” My understanding of the relevant research is that while Americans believe this to be true in large numbers, there isn’t much evidence that education helps create social mobility, at least not on its own.

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  6. This is the same old tired old circular reasoning we’ve had to put up with for decades–all dressed up in flowery language. Senator, we’ve all heard about the “cycle of poverty,” thank you very much. You do NOT break the cycle of poverty by starting with the kids though. You break it by starting with the parents and others in the slums and ghettos and you do it by putting them to work in decent, well-paying jobs starting Monday morning. Don’t tell me that’s not possible. I’ve seen it done on a small scale all over America–time after time after time. But it’d mess with the system big time to really reduce the size of the army of unemployed, wouldn’t it?

    I don’t see anybody, not Washington, not Maryland, and certainly not Bill Gates stepping up to do anything about that one. Just write another generation off as a lost cause? I guess that’s the solution. Problem is–we’ve been doing that for a hundred and fifty or so years. It’s got to stop. These people are valued citizens who have a right to earn their way.

    As for The Walton Foundation–what delicious irony! Walmart can only offer jobs that are guaranteed to perpetuate poverty. So they sure ain’t gonna help.

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