Why DeRay Mckesson’s Mayoral Candidacy Will Be Defined Far More By Education than Policing

Originally published in Slate on February 12th, 2016.

ews of mayoral runs usually don’t merit the attention that Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson got when he announced his candidacy for Baltimore’s top job last week. His campaign had leaked the story to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Guardian in advance, and within 24 hours, he had already crowd-funded $40,000.

National publications began speculating how Mckesson’s candidacy would elevate police reform onto Baltimore’s political agenda, the implication being that it wasn’t already a top priority in the race. It absolutely is: Nearly 10 months after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray in police custody, and after one of the most crime-ridden years Baltimore’s seen in decades, few topics are more prominent. So what, exactly, will Mckesson bring to the election?

Mckesson joins 12 other Democrats competing in April’s primary, the winner of which will almost certainly go on to win in November. But though Mckesson’s large Twitter following may be eager to see how he’ll carry his national Black Lives Matter work into Charm City, I suspect they’ll be in for a surprise. What’s going to distinguish Mckesson probably won’t be policing and criminal justice at all—it’ll be education.

Nationally, school reform is an issue that confounds political partisans, opening fault lines among progressive allies and uniting constituencies that typically never agree. Reform is even more complicated in Baltimore; the city stands as a distinctively unusual landscape for education politics next to other, similar urban centers.

Already, Mckesson has signaled that he plans to campaign on education, which isn’t surprising since that’s where the 30-year-old cut his professional teeth. After graduating college, he spent two years teaching sixth graders in Brooklyn followed by several stints with education nonprofits, reform organizations, and administrative district jobs. But Mckesson brings to the race some national baggage, which he’ll have to confront as he tries to make his case to Baltimore voters. Specifically, residents have already raised questions about his ties to national reform groups like TNTP and Teach for America, as well as his enthusiastic support for charter schools.

So far, Mckesson has largely dismissed these concerns. He’s reminded the public that he’s spent several years working with the Baltimore school district as an administrator focused on staffing personnel. Still, he’ll have to reckon with local education politics that have changed substantially since he left his job back in 2013.

For example, a few months ago a coalition of charter operators filed a lawsuit against the school district over funding—a highly controversial move that’s divided Baltimore public school families. The city is also in the midst of closing down more than two-dozen schools, and the next mayor will need to determine what becomes of the vacant buildings. Will they be sold off? Will they be leased to charter schools? Will they be repurposed into some other civic entity? These decisions are sure to intensify an already-fraught K-12 landscape.

The main thing to grasp about Baltimore’s education environment is that it’s pretty unique. All charter teachers are unionized, unlike most charter employees in other states. Moreover, Maryland charter schools—which are predominately mom-and-pop institutions, not larger charter-school chains—are subject to more oversight and regulation than charters elsewhere. While reformers say they’d like to see Maryland charters freed from these legal constraints, supporters of the status quo say that tougher oversight explains why Maryland charter schools have never wrought the kind of fraud, mismanagement, and abuse found in other jurisdictions.

What Mckesson will soon have to decide is whether he is committed to keeping Baltimore’s charter sector as is—with unionized teachers, a close relationship to the school district, and substantial oversight—or join the coalition of charter operators and national education reform groups that seek to significantly revamp chartering in Maryland. That decision may also force him to choose between competing groups that may try to back him. Some national charter networks have expressed disinterest in setting up shop in Baltimore, namely because they don’t want to work within the school district and employ unionized teachers. The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a D.C.-based organization, consistently ranks Maryland as the worst charter school state in the country, largely for these same reasons.

Yet within Baltimore, both traditional teachers and charter teachers alike strongly support Maryland’s charter law—and rallied together last year to protest reformers’ attempts to change it. The Center for Education Reform, another national group, hired lobbyists to push for loosening Maryland’s regulations. They were ultimately unsuccessful, but the fight is expected to resurface again soon.

On Friday, Mckesson released his education campaign platform—a substantive list of proposals ranging from expanding early childhood education to strengthening college and career readiness programs. He calls for increasing the school district’s transparency (a common theme among all the candidates) and more equitable state financing. He notably doesn’t mention anything about unions or charter schools, but Mckesson won’t be able to shy away from that charged debate for long.

When news broke that Mckesson would be running, some Baltimore activists, particularly those who have been fighting for police reform, protested on Twitter—a surprise to some outside the city, given his national stature within Black Lives Matter. Among other things, locals argue that Mckesson lacks sufficient relationships with the communities he now seeks to lead.

In many ways, their critiques mirror those that veteran public school educators level at Teach for America—that outside young teachers without roots in the cities they work in displace those who have more of a right, and need, to be there. And despite Mckesson’s early campaign efforts to brand himself as a “son of Baltimore,” some local activists have said they’ve rarely seen him fighting alongside them in the causes they’ve been invested in for years, like building independent black institutions and weakening the Maryland police union. (Mckesson defended himself against these charges, saying “there are many ways to engage in the work.”)

A few weeks ago, 11 Democratic candidates gathered together for a mayoral forum to discuss their political vision for Baltimore. One audience member asked the candidates, “How will you stop police from killing black people?” Answers varied somewhat, but all in all, they were broadly similar. The candidates spoke of strengthening civilian review boards, getting body cameras on all police, transforming the way Baltimore recruits and trains officers, establishing more transparent accountability systems, pushing for more police to formally live within the city, mandating cultural diversity training and regular psychiatric evaluations, and calling for convictions for those who break the rules.

In other words, Mckesson is entering a crowded field of candidates who likely share many of his police reform policy goals. Some hope that Mckesson’s candidacy will encourage others to articulate even sharper campaign proposals. Perhaps, and that would be a good thing. But it was already an issue that no candidate was really ignoring—and certainly one that no future mayor can expect to avoid.

So despite to Black Lives Matter’s national work, that aspect of his candidacy is unlikely to be too disruptive in the race. It’ll be where his campaign intersects with the school-reform movement, and specifically how local education politics rub up against his national ties, that could really shake things up.


In Response to a Defense of Voter ID Laws

Originally published 9/23/12 in the JHU Politik.

I write this piece in response to Christopher Winer’s opinion featured in last week’s issue entitled, “Making Your Vote Count Through Voter ID Laws.” Winer argues that Voter ID laws are “common sense”, that they would work to “inspire public confidence” in our electoral system, and that the laws really pose only a “minor problem” to voters who lack proper identification.

I beg to differ.

I am from Pennsylvania, a key battleground state in this upcoming election; Pennsylvania is also currently the state with the strictest Voter ID law in the country. While not all states with Voter ID laws have the same requirements, I will focus on Pennsylvania here because it’s often at the center of this national debate.

Winer insists that although these laws might at the most be a “minor infringement of freedom,” overall they are ultimately worth it.

First it is worth considering, why would they be hypothetically “worth it?” One might answer: these laws work to prevent in-person voter fraud. However Pennsylvania has already ruled in court proceedings that there has been no evidence of an issue with in-person voting fraud in the state. So these laws are quite a risky “preventative solution” to a non-existent problem.

For many, obtaining an ID is truly difficult. This summer I worked at home as an Organizing Fellow on the Obama re-election campaign; the confusing and continually revised Voter ID law was a key concern for voters and organizers on almost a daily basis. I recall one instance where a frustrated middle-aged man came into the Obama office, identified himself as a high school English teacher, and asked in exasperation, “Where can I find a DMV that actually issues these IDs? I moved here recently and I’ve driven to four different DMV centers today and none of them offer photo ID services!” This anecdote was extremely telling. This man, who had the money, time, and means to travel to at least five different DMVs, still struggled greatly to obtain an ID. A majority of individuals who lack proper identification have none of these three things.

In Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, nine rural counties have no DMV centers at all. In an additional 20 counties containing 1.5 million people, Driver’s License centers are open three or fewer days a week. (13 counties have DMVs only open one day per week.) Also, only seven out of 67 total counties have more than one DMV center.

In the Pennsylvania lower-court decision on this issue, Judge Simpson wrote that the number of registered voters without valid voter ID falls “somewhat more than 1 percent and significantly less than 9 percent”, or in other words, anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 registered Pennsylvanian voters.

I agree with Winer that we should clean up the voter registration rolls, among other things. We should be working to enforce laws for problems we have, not problems we don’t have. Stephanie Singer, chair of the Philadelphia City Commission (which runs elections in the city) argues that the voter ID law specifically creates more problems than it fixes. “If this legislature were serious about [voter fraud], they would be funding poll worker training, data forensics, [and] aggressive investigation of the voter registration lists,” Singer tells KYW Newsradio.

What I find most ironic about Winer’s piece was his suggestion that in order for the government to reimburse travel costs to the DMV, individuals should present a utility bill or a bank statement to prove they are who they say they are. Or in other words, the forms of identification that used to be acceptable and legitimate enough to vote now are only good enough to get reimbursed.

You know what would inspire public confidence in our electoral system for me? If we advocated for a system where registered American citizens were easily able to exercise their right to vote—ensuring that we really have moved past the dark days of poll taxes, literacy tests, and unabashed disenfranchisement of women and minorities. If people think we need Voter IDs in order to instill confidence, then over the next few election cycles let us work to phase that process in responsibly. But if we want to ensure that all registered citizens will be able to cast their ballot in the upcoming election, we must admit that there is no way this nation will be ready to handle the proposed ID laws by November 6th. It is simply logistically infeasible.