John King is trying to follow his own advice.
As a social studies teacher, he often encouraged students to get involved in solving the problems they see in the world, particularly in government.
“I spent a lot of years telling students: ‘If you think you can contribute and you have ideas about what’s possible, you should run for office,’” King said.
Over his years working as a teacher and school administrator, King said he’s seen how students and their families are affected by challenges in housing, health care, transportation and jobs. And he has plenty of ideas for how to fix those problems, so he’s putting his money where his mouth is and running to be Maryland’s governor.
“I’ve really concluded that the next governor will be uniquely positioned to make government a force for good in people’s lives,” King said.
King is part of a crowded and talented field of 10 Democrats on the ballot for governor in this summer’s primary election, alongside four Republicans. All are hoping to succeed term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.
King is hoping that Maryland voters will see the value in electing a former civics teacher, who also was the nation’s top education official, to lead the state’s government.
“It couldn’t be a better time to have an educator as governor, and that’s our truth,” King said in one of the first TV ads to go on the air this campaign season.
King, 47, rose quickly through the ranks of the education world, starting as a teacher, becoming a principal, helping found a network of charter schools, and being selected as the commissioner of New York State’s education system, which included not only public schools, but also public libraries and state universities.
But King’s tenure as New York education commissioner from 2011 through 2014 was rocky, punctuated by frequent disagreements with the state teachers’ union over issues including student testing and teacher accountability. King was sued by the teachers’ union and its members took a symbolic vote of no-confidence in his leadership.
New York became a national hotbed for parents and activists who opposed Common Core educational standards and had students sit out required standardized tests.
When President Barack Obama tapped King to be the nation’s education secretary in 2015, The Washington Post described King as “one of the most polarizing figures in K-12″ education, citing the disputes in New York.
King said he ran into a convergence of challenges as commissioner — power disputes within New York’s political world and national pushback against new policies. The dynamics, King said, were “complicated.”
But he maintains that he was “able to get a lot of big things done” as education commissioner, including expanding “P-TECH” schools that train and certify high schoolers in high-tech trade skills
“Even with all the kind of political noise as a backdrop, we were very focused on making sure that we helped teachers and students with the supports that mattered every day,” King said.
During the tumult, King said he came away with a better understanding about “the role of a leader in trying to keep helping people find common ground around what matters most.”
King said he brought that focus to his role as Obama’s education secretary, “trying to kind of cut through the noise to focus on the core mission.”
When out speaking with voters, King talks less about his professional challenges and more about his compelling personal story.
He was raised in New York City, the son of two educators. King’s mother died when he was 8, and shortly after his father fell ill with dementia. King often talks about how his dad was unpredictable and he found refuge in the safe and welcoming environment at school.
King’s father died when the boy was 12. The traumatized and troubled young man stayed with different relatives and, at one point, was kicked out of school.
Eventually, though, thoughtful adults took him under their wings. King calmed down and thrived. He earned multiple Ivy League degrees, including a law degree and a doctorate in education.
“It was teachers and a school counselor, and some family members who were willing to give me a second chance,” King said. “And because of those educators, I was able to get my life back on track with their help.”
The experience impressed upon King how schools can help people, and he’s fond of saying that “public school saved my life.” He’s offered that line at public appearances, from a roundtable in the basement of a Baltimore community center to a forum before voters at a retirement community.
King extends his belief in the power of public schools to other government services.
“I have a deeper appreciation of that role public institutions can play because of the role of public schools played in my life as a kid,” he said.
King’s family history also influences his work.
His mother was born in Puerto Rico and his father was Black, so he would be the first Black and Latino governor if elected. All 30 governors of Maryland have been white men.
A few years ago, he learned that his ancestors were once enslaved in Montgomery County, a 25-mile drive from where King and his family live today in Silver Spring. King went most of his life unaware of the details, which were unearthed after officials at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore discovered in 2016 that one of King’s grandmothers on his father’s side, Estelle Stansberry King, was an 1894 graduate of a school that became UMES.
Further research into the King family followed, and it was discovered that Estelle’s father-in-law, Charles King, and five of his siblings were enslaved in Montgomery County. Remarkably, the descendants of the family that enslaved the Kings still live on the land. The two families have met and discussed their shared and troubled history.
To King, the fact that his great-grandfather was enslaved and King is a successful educator and hopeful politician shows both the challenges and opportunities in America.
One of King’s early ads in this campaign uses his family history — going within three generations from enslaved in a cabin to being in the cabinet of the first Black president — to underscore the need to examine the nation’s racist history.
It starts with a clip of Tucker Carlson from Fox News intoning: “School curricula have become openly racist” followed by Sen. Ted Cruz yelling: “Critical race theory is bigoted! It is a lie!”
King then appears on screen, calmly saying: “Some politicians want to erase my story.” He goes on to explain — briefly — that “gaps in health, wealth and criminal justice” are tied to slavery and discrimination, and that’s something Americans need to learn about and grapple with.
A teacher is “exactly what we need as governor,” said Fareeha Waheed, a special needs teacher in Baltimore. She’s seen firsthand the challenges that students of color and urban students face, and she’s felt that they’ve been left behind by Hogan.
Waheed was thrilled to learn that King was running for governor, having been impressed with him during the height of the pandemic when he convened discussions for teachers on how to help kids from falling too far behind.
And while Waheed, a vice chair of the Baltimore Teachers Union, has education at the front of her mind, she’s also impressed with King’s proposals to support LGBTQ Marylanders and to expand mass transit.
“His whole platform is more comprehensive than other candidates that I’ve read,” Waheed said, adding that King is also good at translating policy talk in a way that helps people understand.
Max Finberg befriended King several years ago when he realized they had a lot in common: both worked in the Obama administration, lived in the same area and had kids around the same age. They also were Harry Truman Scholars, a program for young people interested in public service.
While King hasn’t been elected to political office before, Finberg is convinced King’s leadership at the U.S. Department of Education and surviving New York state politics has positioned him to lead Maryland. Finberg and his family have hosted fundraisers for King’s campaign.
“He’s got exactly the kind of experience and fresh perspective that I think is necessary for a progressive next season in Maryland politics and history,” said Finberg, who runs a nonprofit, Growing Hope Globally, focused on global hunger.
A self-described “policy nerd,” King says that he’s not just making promises, he has a way to pay for them, too.
King said he’d consider limited tax increases to pay for Maryland’s needs, especially for funding the ambitious public education plan known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.
“One significant difference is the candidates in the field have generally been unwilling to talk about how they will actually pay for things,” King said. “And we’ve been very clear: We need tax fairness.”
To King, “tax fairness” means closing loopholes that limit the taxes paid by corporations and instituting a tax increase for individuals who earn more than $1 million per year. He believes that “the vast majority of Marylanders” agree with those tax changes.
“Ultimately, people get that there’s important work for government to do. And in order to do that work, there need to be revenue sources,” King said. “And so the responsible thing is to be clear about what we want to achieve.”