This interview is part of a series of interviews with the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor in 2022. In these interviews, WTOP asked all the candidates the same or similar questions on education, public safety and crime, jobs and the economy, and transportation. The Maryland primary is July 19.
The candidate: Jon Baron, former nonprofit executive
Running mate: Natalie Williams, communications professional, former D.C. Ward Eight Democratic Party president
Jon Baron is a nonprofit executive who served in the Pentagon during Clinton administration and on boards and commissions in both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
He said his focus on evidence-based policies, such as high-quality tutoring for every struggling first- and second-grader in the state, sets him apart from his competitors.
“What the others are proposing is the same old, worn-out playbook of rolling out or launching or expanding one unproven government program after another and hoping it’s going to work. We’ve done that. We’ve been doing that for decades.”
He adds, “We are focused like a laser beam on expanding solutions that don’t just sound like good ideas, aren’t just spending money, aren’t just well-meaning, but have actually been tested and shown to make a big difference in people’s lives.”
Baron was polling at 1% in the Democratic field, according to a poll released earlier this month.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity
WTOP: Because of the pandemic, there are a lot of concerns about learning loss, about kids’ mental health, their social well-being. And of course, all of this happens as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future has to be implemented by the next governor. What will you do to make sure that we have a successful implementation of that program?
John Baron: The problems that we’ve had over the past couple of years — with learning loss as a result of COVID — are enormous, and they particularly impact kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and young kids. I mean, how can you learn how to write or how to read, really, over a computer? There has been a lot of learning loss; that’s been documented. We need effective ways to address it.
That is layered on to much longer-term problems. You know, in Maryland, more than a quarter of middle school students in our state can’t read at a basic level. More than a third can’t do basic math — those numbers are no different than they were 20 years ago.
So the blueprint, I believe, is potentially a transformative piece of legislation. But the thing that I would bring that is different in implementing it is a focus of the funds from the blueprint on programs that have actually been tested, and shown to make a big difference in student outcomes.
I’ll give you one example. One of my main initiatives as part of the blueprint initiative as governor will be to expand high-quality tutoring to every struggling first- and second-grader in the entire state. Because that’s been shown to move them up toward grade level early, before their problems get serious in later grades. We’re going to do it by recruiting an army of people from the community, including retirees and recent college graduates, to become tutors for a modest stipend as a public service. That’s just one example.
In general, for blueprint implementation, we need to focus on programs and policies in education that don’t just sound like they’re good ideas, but — like tutoring — have actually been tested and shown to make a big difference on student achievement and other important outcomes.
WTOP: If I can ask you about the tutoring … Are there programs that you can point to that have done this work? And does blueprint allow for that to scale? Because you may have some communities where that’s very doable, and other communities — I’m thinking of, say in Western Maryland — that may not have the large population to bring in to help this out?
Baron: Well, there are a number of programs … that operate on a modest scale in Maryland and other states. There’s a program called Reading Recovery that my nonprofit worked on with the Obama administration to scale up. That uses certified teachers to do tutoring in first grade. That’s been found to move kids up — struggling students from the 15th percentile to about the 45th percentile. It’s very effective. Experience Corps — that’s another one that uses retirees and brings them into the classroom. There’s one called Reading Partners. What we would do differently is expand this approach so that we provide high-quality tutoring to every struggling first- and second-grader in the entire state of Maryland.
If we do it with people from the community, it’s done in a cost-effective way. There are many, many retirees and recent college graduates. We would set up programs with a number of the colleges and universities around the state to enable students, once they graduate, to do a year or two of tutoring as a public service for a modest stipend. What we are doing differently is doing it at scale, so that every struggling student gets this high-quality, meaningful program to move them up toward grade level so that everyone — virtually everyone — is reading and doing basic math by third grade.
… To step back for a second, before blueprint and before the Kirwan Commission, which led to the blueprint, 20 years ago, Maryland had a similar effort called the Thornton Commission. And it resulted in a major increase in education spending in Maryland — about a 40% increase during the 2000s, after adjusting for inflation. That increase in spending did not result in improved student outcomes, according to the Kirwan Commission and others. The numbers just stayed flat.
That’s why this time — working through the State Department of Education and others — the emphasis in implementation of the blueprint needs to be on not just increased spending, not just well meaning programs, but programs like tutoring and there are others like career academies in high poverty high schools that have actually been tested and shown to make a big difference in student outcomes and even long term their earnings once they enter the workforce.
WTOP: We’re seeing new police accountability boards being formed as part of a requirement under state law. Do you have concerns about how those will work? And how could you address the situation that some counties say they’re facing with recruitment and retention of police, while also having to balance this need to be more effective within the community and more equitable in law enforcement?
Baron: The idea of police accountability, I think, is very important. We’ve all seen with the Freddie Gray incident and the George Floyd murder and many others that the whole country has woken up to something that, you know, Black Americans and Americans of color have been experiencing for a long time. I was proud of the Maryland General Assembly for really passing far-reaching police reforms, including independent investigations through these police accountability boards of incidents of potential police abuse.
The challenge is, we don’t know which of these reforms are actually most effective, and which may not be effective at all. For example, there are many different types of police training. There’s something called implicit bias training; there is procedural justice training; there is de-escalation training, and there are others. Do they actually work to give police officers the training that they need? Do they work to improve community trust? Do they work to reduce use-of-force incidents? We don’t know. We don’t know which of them are most effective.
So as governor, one of my main priorities would be to test each of these approaches as we implement them to figure out which reforms, which types of police training and so on, are most effective, and expand those that actually work. For those that aren’t effective, we move on to something else.
WTOP: And how long would you give them to test those out?
Baron: My philanthropic team funded a study of procedural justice training for police officers, which is teaching police officers how to act in a more unbiased way when they enter an incident and to be an objective party and also to treat people with respect. That study found it took about a year and a half to complete, so you can get the evidence fairly soon. And in that particular study, it did find promising findings in terms of changing police behavior, as measured by outside observers who were riding along with the police. It’s a preliminary finding, but you can at least get a sense of whether it’s working within about a year, a year and a half.
WTOP: How would you deal with the issue of morale and recruitment and retention? Particularly in this area, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, police have said, “Look, we’re competing with Secret Service, FBI, other agencies to get the talent that we need.” And now, given the current climate, we do hear from some Fraternal Order of Police organizations about the difficulty of improving morale. What do you think you would do?
Baron: I think from the top of government, we need to convey a support for the police …The vast majority of police officers are well-meaning, they are public servants and worthy of respect. There are a few bad apples, and we need to recognize that and do appropriate training and take appropriate precautions and have appropriate accountability. But I think, from the top of government and among community leaders and others — and from the governor — we need a respect for what police do in terms of their very important role in public service.
There are other things that we can do. No. 1, training is important — training and coaching, providing them the support, like the procedural justice training, and others that I’ve described, that they need to be successful in their jobs. That’s very important. Making sure that police officers are fully paid and that they are supported — there is the funding to provide additional supports around what they do.
And also that we are supporting effective police practices. For example, the evidence says that one of the most effective approaches to policing is an approach called community policing in hot spots, which are high-crime areas, city blocks within an urban area that account for more than half of most of the crime incidents. Hot spots policing makes sure that the police officers are patrolling in those areas, and getting out and meeting community residents, that they are securing unsecured buildings, abandoned buildings, and providing lighting at night so that the areas are more safe. It’s been shown to reduce the incidence of crime by about 25% in places like Las Vegas and others where it’s been tested. We need to provide police officers with strategies that are actually effective in building community trust and reducing crime and enabling them to succeed in their job.
Jobs, economy, transportation
WTOP: We often hear that when firms look at relocating to an area like Maryland, they look at transportation: Can their workers get to and from work effectively? We hear a lot about the need to attract businesses and improve our transportation. Gov. Hogan started that process with this plan to put tolls on portions of the Beltway and I-270. He also has talked about adding a span to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Your thoughts on those issues?
Baron: I agree about the importance of transportation. And I’m a very strong supporter of mass transit; I support completion of the Purple Line; I support an East-West transit solution, like the Red Line, in Baltimore. I myself, I have ridden the bus to work for the past 25 years before I joined the race for governor. So I’m a supporter of mass transit.
But I do also believe traffic on the Beltway and elsewhere is a quality of life issue. It’s an economic issue, as you pointed out — people need to get to their jobs — but it’s also a quality of life issue. Nobody likes sitting in traffic. I do support the partial expansion of the Beltway that has been proposed in the southern part of I-270 and from the I-270 spur through the American Legion Bridge. The approach that’s going forward there — the partial expansion — is built on a successful approach in Virginia. It will add additional lanes that drivers can access for free during rush hour if they have high-occupancy vehicles — two or more vehicles — or if they’re a single driver, they can pay a toll to access those lanes. And what it does is it ensures that even during rush hour, there is a non-congested alternative that they can use. It also has been found in Virginia to modestly reduce traffic in the regular lanes by providing an escape valve. So everybody benefits. I do support that.
The larger expansion of the Beltway further east — I think we should wait on that; see what happens after this first stage goes forward, what happens to traffic patterns, and whether additional expansion is needed. That further expansion would be much more disruptive to the environment and to neighboring communities. And we ought to look at alternatives beyond expansion as well.
WTOP: And just so I’m clear, you’re talking about going eastward to the Silver Spring area, correct?
Baron: That’s right. That would be much more disruptive than the current expansion that’s going forward. We should consider alternatives there, too. One that has been proposed would be trying, on a pilot basis, to take one of the existing lanes in that part of the Beltway, turn it into an HOV lane as well as a toll lane in the way I just described. But it would be done with existing lanes. Try that on a pilot basis, see if that helps reduce traffic over a period of, like, seven months, and then see if that works as a more limited solution that wouldn’t require the disruption of a full expansion.
WTOP: When you talk about you’re OK with the tolls, there’s the accusation from some folks that those would be “Lexus lanes.”
Baron: Well, people can access them if they have two or more drivers in the car for free. So that, I think, is an important thing to note. Also, somebody more moderate income, if they really need a non-congested alternative to get their kid from daycare or to get to work, it would be there for them. And in Virginia, where this has been done, because it’s an escape valve, it actually results in modestly less traffic on the regular lanes as well. So everyone would likely benefit from this.
WTOP: And what about the Chesapeake Bay Bridge? There’s this plan of perhaps adding a span right alongside the current location to deal with the massive congestion that that bridge can see. What are your thoughts on that? What would you want to do to improve the situation there?
Baron: I support the studies going forward there, the evaluation process that’s going forward. Based on the initial studies that have been done, it looks like that’s been identified — the third span — as the most effective approach to addressing traffic issues, as opposed to building, you know, another Bay Bridge. So I support the process of going forward with the additional studies — I think it’s called a Tier Two study — and to see the results of that.
WTOP: Is there something else on this topic I haven’t asked you about that you want people to know about?
Baron: You know, the biggest problem in Maryland’s economy, by far, is the fact that the bottom 40% of Maryland households have seen stagnant wages since the 1980s, while income inequality has soared. And our state has made no progress reducing our poverty rate in more than 30 years. The American narrative of optimism and progress that we all knew after World War II — the rising tide to lift all boats — that no longer holds true for nearly half of people in our state. One of my main initiatives is to address that. And we would do it through programs and policies that have actually been tested and shown to make a big difference.
I’ll give you one example: One of my main priorities as governor, at the very beginning of my administration, would be to launch a statewide partnership with businesses to provide effective job training to every young adult in the state of Maryland who wants to advance. If it’s done right, job training has been shown to increase earnings as much as 40%. But the key is to focus that training on fast-growing industries like IT or health care, and also to work hand-in-hand with employers who provide paid internships to the trainees. So under my plan, the state will pay for the training, the employers will pay for the internships; our economy gets skilled workers. Everyone benefits from this.
WTOP: And lastly, I’ll ask what in your experience makes you the better candidate?
Baron: My running mate — the terrific Natalie Williams, from Prince George’s County, and I — our approach to solving problems is very different from the other candidates. All of the candidates share similar goals. We all want to improve education and economic opportunity in the rest. But Natalie’s and my approach is different. What the others are proposing is the same old, worn-out playbook of rolling out or launching or expanding one unproven government program after another and hoping it’s going to work. We’ve done that. We’ve been doing that for decades. Twenty years from now, will our children look back at this time and say that we faced all of these persistent problems — stagnant student achievement, stagnant wages, stagnant poverty — and just kept on doing the same thing again and again?
Natalie’s and my approach is different. We are focused like a laser beam on expanding solutions that don’t just sound like good ideas, aren’t just spending money, aren’t just well-meaning, but have actually been tested and shown to make a big difference in people’s lives, like statewide tutoring, as I described, and like the partnership with businesses to provide proven job training programs to young adults in our state.
Interview conducted by Kate Ryan; edited by Jack Moore