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“Teachers saved my life,” John King, Jr. said softly on the other end of the phone.

“Both of my parents passed away when I was little. I lost my mom when I was eight and my dad when I was twelve,” King continued.  In the wake of this loss and trauma, King started down a troubled path. He was rebelling in school and facing expulsion.

“But,” he said, “teachers in high school saw me as more than just the sum of my mistakes.”

The love and passion of these teachers altered the trajectory of King’s future. Education became not just a career, but fostered a deep-seated conviction to ensure every child had access to teachers and schools that foster the best in them.

John King, Jr. meets with student
John King, Jr., former US Secretary of Education and candidate for Governor of Maryland, meets with high school student. (Photo: John King for Governor website)

This conviction would take a young man who suffered immense tragedy while growing up in New York City, and lead him to be a graduate of Harvard University, a classroom teacher, a school and district leader, the United States Secretary of Education and, now, a candidate for Governor of the state of Maryland.

“My life is a testament to what is possible when we make opportunity available to everyone,” King said. “We, as a state, need to do more to make sure that opportunity exists for every child and family in Maryland.”

Perhaps even more remarkable than King’s personal path to this moment is the arc of his family’s history.

“From a cabin to the President’s cabinet in three generations”

King has “deep family roots in Maryland.”

In the 1800s, King’s great-grandfather was enslaved on a property in Gaithersburg. That property, according to King, is still owned by the same family who enslaved his great grandfather.

King had the opportunity in recent years to meet with that family and to visit the property itself.

“The property and its grounds have been maintained,” Kind said. “The cabin my great-grandfather lived in is still there.”

“I’ve been able to take time to sit in that cabin and reflect on how recent that history is,” he continued.

“It’s incredible that my family went in three generations from living in that cabin as enslaved people to serving in the cabinet of the first Black president.”

At the start of 2016, King was tapped by then President Barack Obama to be the 10th US Secretary of Education.

“John knows how education can transform a child’s future,” Obama said after King’s confirmation by the U.S. Senate. “He’s seen it in his own life. And his experience, counsel, and leadership couldn’t be more valuable to me and to our country as we work to open the doors of opportunity to all of America’s children.”

michelle obama obama presidential center
Former President Barack Obama, left, and former first lady Michelle Obama toss shovels of dirt during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Obama Presidential Center Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

King was the first and, to this date, the only Afro-Latino US Secretary of education in the nation’s history. As he campaigns to lead the state where his ancestors were once enslaved, he seeks to make history again.

“I believe Maryland is ready for more diverse representation in our state leadership,” King told The BWSTimes.

If elected, King would be the state’s first Black governor and the first Afro-Latino governor ever in the United States.

King campaigning on an unapologetically progressive and equity-centered platform

John King has spent his entire career fighting to ensure every student has access to a transformational education. Now, he is campaigning for governor on a bold and progressive policy platform that does the same.

Time and again, politicians have promised equity and progress and failed to deliver. Americans are waking up to this reality today as the US Senate ditches plans for paid family leave.

King plans to do things differently.

“We’ve got to campaign on specifics so we have a mandate to get things done when we take office,” he said.

The equity-centered platform King is bringing to the race is vast. Among its pillars are: “committing to state-wide paid family leave, enhancing access to economic opportunities, ensuring affordable and quality childcare for children from birth through five years old, universal Pre-K for 3 and 4 year olds, substantial investment in public education and teacher recruitment, greater supports for mental health and addiction, reforms for greater police accountability, comprehensive plans to protect the state’s shoreline from climate change” and much more.

As blue as Maryland tends to be in national politics, the state has chosen a Republican governor by decisive margins for 3 out of the last 5 election cycles. In 2018, governor Larry Hogan (a Republican) scored a double-digit win over his progressive challenger to secure re-election. This propensity for left-leaning voters to choose the Republican over the Democrat has some shifting toward more centrist policies.

But King remains steadfast that progressive policies aimed at eliminating disparities appeal to a broad base. He refuses to sacrifice the push for a more equitable Maryland for the sake of political gain.

And at the center of all of this is that unwavering conviction to build a better future for every child in the state.

King’s vision for a stronger Maryland starts with education

“Every winter in Baltimore, we have kids sitting in classrooms wearing hats and coats and gloves,” King said with an air of disbelief in his voice.

“It’s wrong,” he said. “Our children deserve better. Closing these equity gaps has to be our main focus.”

In Maryland and cross the nation, issues facing public education have long been avoidable in the suburbs. The crumbling infrastructure, lack of resources and teacher-less classrooms students in urban and rural areas face have remained out of sight in more affluent areas. But that’s changing. Inequities allowed to exist in some areas for decades have grown into whole-scale crises.

The most prevalent among them is the teacher shortage. Recruiting and retaining teachers has been increasing difficult and the efforts only became worse during the pandemic. It’s an issue that requires immediate attention, and King believes he has the right expertise to fix it.

“We are going to launch a targeted effort to attract well-prepared, diverse teachers to communities that have been historically underserved,” King said. His plan includes targeted recruitment in community colleges, incentives for high need areas and subjects and a plan to support prospective teachers by paying off their student loans.

He said he also knows that schools need to be healthy, safe and joyful for every child and every adult to steps inside.

“We need schools with strong socio-economic environments for our kids,” King said. “Schools with counselors and social workers that provide students with supports and a well-rounded education.”

A teacher as Governor

Schools – teachers – saved King’s life as a young child. In every part of the conversation, he centers ensuring every Maryland child has access to any opportunity they can imagine. His voice lights up when he talks about it.

But it’s no surprise. This vision of equity is what has brought John King, Jr. to this moment. And when he looks back on his own family’s journey in just over a century’s time, he sees what can be possible if leaders ensure that one simple yet powerful idea is driving the work forward:

Every child. Every day. No exceptions.

It’s a vision John King hopes Marylanders will believe in as well, and that they’ll choose to elect a teacher as Governor.

Nate Morris moved to the Tulsa area in 2012 and has committed himself to helping build a more equitable and just future for everyone who calls the city home. As a teacher, advocate, community organizer...