February 26, 2021

Van Hollen Hosts Virtual Discussion on Education Equity

Moderated by Baltimore student Jemira Queen, the discussion featured Former Education Secretary John King and Baltimore County teacher Joel Gamble

This week, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) was joined by John King, former U.S. Education Secretary and founder of Strong Future Maryland, and Joel Gamble, Baltimore County teacher, CEO of Joel Gamble Community Youth Outreach, and former NFL player, for an online discussion moderated by Baltimore high schooler Jemira Queen. The panelists discussed inequities in our education system, the historic investment laid out in the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, and legislation Senator Van Hollen has introduced to support our students and educators, including the Full-Service Community Schools Expansion Act and the Keep Our PACT Act. They talked about the impact of chronic underinvestments in our nation’s schools, especially in Maryland, and highlighted how the pandemic has exacerbated interconnected challenges and already existing inequities our students face.

A recording is available hereExcerpts of the conversation follow: 

On funding gaps:

JEMIRA QUEEN: Based on each of your roles, could you speak about the biggest roadblocks in making our education system more equitable for today’s students?

JOEL GAMBLE: I always feel that there are several different topics I would like to touch on for that question. First, I would like to talk about the school facilities. If we walk around Baltimore City and we actually take an outside look at the facilities that these kids are actually going to school in, can we truly say that it’s equitable for education for everybody? If we take a look at these schools, that are older than myself, and maybe even my parents – without any heat, without any air conditioning, without water, proper water to drink. And then, even with COVID, with the restrictions we need to put in place as far as ventilation systems and things of that nature. Our schools in the inner-city are light years behind some of these 21st century schools. And then we talk about standardized testing and how is it standardized if some of these kids are not receiving the basic needs and the facilities that they are going to school in?

So, that’s one topic I would touch on. I will also talk about funding. When we talk about funding there are several things that I look at – teachers’ pay. You know, we have teachers that are working two and three jobs just to make ends meet, they have to pay student loans. So, are they really truly in a mental capacity or mind state to actually teach our kids properly when they actually have to make ends meet themselves? What about more male teachers in the school system? I see myself as a diamond in the rough when I’m working in the school system and very rarely do I see male teachers, especially African-American male teachers in the schools, other than coaches and behavior specialists.


SECRETARY JOHN KING: The lack of resources translates into a real difference in students day-to-day experience. So we know that low-income students and students of color are less likely to have early childhood slots. So they’re missing out on the preparation even before they get to kindergarten. Low-income students, and students of color – because their schools have less resources often are having teachers who are long-term subs, or aren’t certified in the area they are teaching. So there are disparities and access to quality learning as a result. There are disparities in access to counselors. Think about this: there are 1.7 million kids in the United States that go to a school where there is a law enforcement officer, but no counseling. Right, so that creates a school to prison pipeline, because of a lack of resources. [...] Resource disparities lock young people out of opportunities and we’re just not going to get to an equitable place unless we tackle that.


U.S. SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-Md.): I think so many of the inequities do go, at their heart, to the gaps in funding. To really address all the issues, and I think there is the hardware issue and there’s the software issue. As Joel mentioned, you’ve got all the issues of the school buildings themselves, what a student walks into and is facing and there is such a world of difference between so many schools, if you walk into a Baltimore City school vs. one in the suburban area.

And then you got what I call the software. The teachers, the human capital. Everyone is going to work every day to try to help kids learn, but all the resources that they have around them. And if you think about the way we fund schools in our system, public schools, it’s very hard. It’s inequitable because it’s based on a property tax, it is based on this local funding idea, and that means if you are a relatively wealthy area you are going to be able to provide that first core capacity funding at much higher levels. And that’s why it’s so important that the state government and that the federal government help correct for that fundamental inequity at the property tax local level.

The State of Maryland has a role, and at the federal level, we are working very hard. I have introduced a bill called Keep Our Promises to America's Children and Teachers Act, and fundamentally it would increase Title I funding. And it would also make good, finally, on the federal government’s promise to fully fund special ed and IDEA. And just to give you sense of the magnitude of this, and the magnitude of the shortfall – if you look at last year, if the federal government fully funded its commitment under IDEA, where it promised 40% and is delivering only 14, if we fully met our Title I commitment, the State of Maryland would have received over $700 million more for its public school system, and that would have been targeted to the school systems that are most in need, like Baltimore.


QUEEN: Me, as a Baltimore City Public Schools student, who has been in Baltimore City Public Schools her whole entire life, I feel like it's just so important to have these conversations and also make changes. I see different things on a daily basis and I feel like when I think of Baltimore City Public Schools, I think of the good and bad. The bad usually outweighs the good, but there are also good things about Baltimore City Public Schools, or just public schools in general – the community that is there and everything. But I feel like we lack resources and we lack understanding. When Mr. Gamble brought up trauma and everything that we face in many communities that have public school students, it's kind of like a big issue because it's not talked about. We live amongst violence, we live amongst trauma on a daily basis and then have to go back to the public school system. Everything has become so normalized to the point that we don't even understand what is affecting us or how it has affected us because we have been around it for so long and it has been normalized. And I feel like that is such a huge issue. And if we don't understand what's happening or don't even have an emotional response to it anymore, to the point it's just like, are you learning from it? And how can we move forward? It's so important to have that education act with Mr. Van Hollen and also just the work that you all are doing because that would just change the whole conversation around many different issues and it can change public school systems for the better.

On Community Schools:

VAN HOLLEN: I am a believer in the community schools model, and I would be interested in everyone else’s thoughts on that. Because it attempts to address all the issues you are talking about when a student’s coming to school, and trying to learn but all these other things are going on in that student’s lives with their parents, or whether there are issues of hunger, all sorts of issues that impacts the ability of that student to learn. And that is why the resources have to couple with the community schools model. And we’re also pushing to expand that universally, as part of the legislation we have introduced.


GAMBLE: ...You’re talking about single parent households in Baltimore in, I think it’s around 75% or so, so you got some parents that are trying to make ends meet and there’s one parent in the household. And that child is pretty much on their own. They are dealing with their trauma on their own, and this is why it is so important to have that school space.

And we know that school is not going to help everything, but we need to have some type of wraparound services, so I love what Chris brought up about the community schooling because we need services to kind of wrap our hands around these kids because if we don’t, we know the streets will.

On systemic racism:

KING: The reality is, in many parts of the country, because of our housing policies, we still have many communities that are racially and socioeconomically isolated. And then we’ve systematically – because of what Senator Van Hollen described about property taxes, which systematically underinvested in the schools serving the highest need students. So, we can’t begin to make progress on these issues unless we have an honest conversation about how we got here, grapple with the consequences of systemic racism, and then say how do we move forward from here? And that’s going to require a commitment to resources but it’s also going to require a commitment to change in the curriculum. [...] A majority of kids in the country’s schools are kids of color, but only 18% of our teachers are teachers of color. Only 2% of our teachers are African-American men. So we have a lot of work to do to make sure the educator workforce is more representative. I am hopeful that because of the organizing of young people, like you Jemira, there is a more open conversation as a country about these systemic inequities and I hope a willingness to not just say Black Lives Matter, but to implement policies that show Black Lives Matter.


VAN HOLLEN: The Secretary mentioned housing segregation. If you look at Baltimore City, it was one of the most segregated cities. In fact, you had the worst earliest set of racial covenants built in to communities of housing. And that obviously has had a very long-lasting and continuing impact. Inequality in income, wealth, jobs. The opportunity to accumulate wealth. All of these things are very connected, which is why we need everything from increasing minimum wage to the child refundable tax credit, which is a really important thing that's in the emergency bill that's in front of the Congress right now. The Biden-Harris proposal would cut child poverty in half in the United States of America because we would make that child tax credit eligible for every family. This conversation is so important because it's pointing out that when you're dealing with the consequences of systemic racism, you need to deal with it on a systemic basis. We can't be so paralyzed by the largeness of the issue that we don't act urgently on each one.

On the digital divide:

VAN HOLLEN: The other thing that has become really even more clear since the pandemic started is the digital divide. It’s another big piece of this conversation. Before the pandemic we were trying to deal with the homework gap. [...] We have this homework gap, and it is one that disproportionately impacts communities of color. It is a universal issue though, in the sense that it is rural, suburban, and urban. We have been taking some steps to close it and we need to do even more. Because now the homework gap is a full-blown learning gap when students are doing distance learning or hybrid. So that’s another big challenge that we have got to address right away. It is also something that is included in this emergency bill, we’ve got $4 billion in there for that. 

On the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future: 

KING: We just had the Maryland General Assembly override Governor Hogan’s veto of the Blueprint for Maryland. The Blueprint for Maryland was built over a series of years through conversations with students, with families, with educators and is a plan to get more resources to the highest need districts in the state – particularly Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. The additional resources will help make possible making schools that have a lot of low-income students community schools. So, they will be able to have on-site health services, mental health services, adult education programs, afterschool and summer programs. It also has money for paying teachers better, which of course is important for making sure we track and keep teachers. [...] So there’s a lot of opportunity in that Blueprint to do a lot of good things in Maryland schools and then if we can add to that with the funding that Senator Van Hollen is fighting for community schools, Title I, and for special education… we could see an entirely different experience for students over the next few years. So that’s a reason to be hopeful, but we’ve got to keep working and support Senator Van Hollen as he fights for that legislation.


VAN HOLLEN: The challenges are huge. And we talked about them this evening. And they're interconnected and they're based on our historical legacy that we've got to tackle head-on. But there are also so many good things that are happening at the same time. There is reason, I think, for hope. Joel Gamble’s organization is doing so much good in terms of getting those computers out there, connecting people. The Secretary mentioned the State of Maryland, the legislature overturned Governor Hogan's veto of the Kirwan Commission legislation. That will be a lot more resources and some of the policy changes we mentioned. And at the federal level, we have reason for hope with the Biden-Harris group and now a majority in Congress that is focused on trying to get more of these resources to community schools. 

You really put your finger on the challenges because when you walk into a school through the school doors, it doesn't mean anyone can leave behind all the other issues. We have to do the best we can to make sure that students have a support system in the school to address those issues, but we obviously have to work outside the school on all these issues.