Education Opinion

Bill Ferguson, Maryland State Senator

By Sara Mead — May 18, 2011 6 min read
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In 2010, Bill Ferguson, a 27-year-old staffer for the Baltimore Public Schools, scored an upset victory over a 27-year-incumbent in the Democratic primary to represent Maryland’s 46th Senate District, with a campaign built largely on support of Teach for America alumni and other Baltimore education reformers.

A freshman who had never previously held elected office, Ferguson faced a steep learning curve in his first legislative session this spring, but nevertheless was able to score victories on Baltimore school funding and charter school access to facilities. The lifelong Maryland resident, now 28, is just one of a growing number of Teach for America alumni taking the step into public office in recent years, and a figure to watch in Maryland politics and education reform going forward. [Read more.]Why on earth did you decide to run for elected office?

I came to Baltimore in 2005 through TFA, which was not the career path I thought I was going to be on. I was an economics major in college, and saw myself going into banking or business. But TFA really hit a core with me: the belief that we could actually close the achievement gap, that it could actually happen, was not just a talking point.

I started teaching in West Baltimore, and that experience changed my life. It made me realize we have some severe problems in public education and inequities between different groups of kids.

At first I was depressed. But as I taught I saw successes and realized that we actually can do a much better job of serving students, and just how much the system falls short in how we’ve historically served them.

In 2007 I left the classroom to join [Baltimore schools chief] Dr. Andres Alonso’s staff. It was a very exciting time. I worked on systemwide initiatives. A lot of times the work we were doing was hampered by state law. Politics continue to get in the way.

I realized that there were a lot of passionate education reformers in Baltimore, but no one had run for office. I really thought that if we could galvanize the energy of those reformers we could pull off an upset win. I challenged a 27 year incumbent in the Democratic primary. My opponent hadn’t had a challenger in 4 of 5 elections, so I thought if we out worked him we could pull it off.

Did/how did education reformers play a role in your campaign?

There are 450-500 Teach for America alumni who still live and work in Baltimore. Because of our shared experiences they were the natural constituency I reached out to first. I did lots of on-on-one and small group meetings explaining the vision and asking for help. My campaign staff and volunteers were almost entirely teachers. There was this amazingly exciting spirit of possibility.

A few facts made the race seem more feasible for a challenger. The city has changed dramatically over last 20 years. In my district, which is everything around the Inner Harbor, the constituency has become younger, and there are fewer ethnic neighborhoods. We also used lots of social media tools to get across to a different constituency. We knew we had to reach nontraditional voters. A lot of the younger families that traditionally would have moved out of the city when their children reached school age, because of the mortgage crisis they didn’t move: For them schools are their #1 issue.

What have been your victories/successes to date?

In the most recent legislative session, we were successful with two legislative priorities: First was around preserving and increasing investment in education in Baltimore City. In the Governor’s proposed budget [for fiscal year 2012], City Schools were slated to lose between $15 million and $18 million from the previous year, even though student enrollment had increased. Combined with the loss of federal stimulus funds [at the end of June 2011] that would have been really devastating to the progress we’ve been seeing in Baltimore. I worked with the delegation and spent time with advocates and parents to organize. We were successful in restoring full funding to the previous year’s level, plus an additional $4 million. We also passed an alcohol tax to enable another $9 million for city school facilities.

So we went from looking at a $15 million cut in Baltimore schools funding at the start of the legislative session to a $13 million increase. That increase in funding is an appropriate response to the way the school district is improving. We’ve seen scores grow, and we’ll see bigger progress in the future if we sustain the work that’s being done and fund it.

I sponsored 3 education-specific bills in the most recent legislative session and was able to pass one of them, on charter school facilities. Charter schools in Maryland don’t get per-pupil capital funds. We passed a bill to give charter schools the right of first refusal on empty school district buildings before they revert back to local government control. We also passed a statewide property tax exemption for charter schools operating in commercial space, which should help charter schools to provide better school facilities for their students.

What are your top legislative priorities/goals for education in Maryland moving forward?

My paramount goal is human capital in the public school system. A lot of times we get wrapped up in this “good teacher/bad teacher” conversation--that’s a mess. The biggest part that gets lost is retaining great teachers and school leaders. There are monetary ways but also elevating the level of the profession to show that being a great classroom teacher is probably the single most important and challenging job, and that having more great types of teachers is the best type of school reform possible. We have a lot already but we continue to lose them after four or five years and start all over again.
I will probably support a few pieces of legislation this year that will go after that idea.
The other big issue is facilities. This is the biggest area where the state can assist the city of Baltimore. Baltimore doesn’t have the money to provide 21st century schools for its students. If we really want our children to be successful, to show that we believe they can succeed as well as kids in the suburbs, we need to provide them with 21st century schools.

What other issues outside of education are you particularly engaged in?

I served on the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and there are a lot of environmental issues that I’m engaged in as part of that committee.

I hope to get more into transportation issues because I think we’re at a really critical point now. Everyone is talking about gas prices but there’s a wider debate we haven’t engaged in--looking at mass transit in an equity way, as something that’ s part of making our economy truly prepared for a globalized world. We haven’t invested in the infrastructure to build the truly world-class transportation that is needed for the rebirth of our cities.

Who are your role models?

I learned an unbelievable amount from Dr. Alonso. He’s been masterful in the way he’s maneuvered politics, policy and vision-setting. I learned how it’s ok to be contentious because that’s the only way you can move a system--but it’s good to be collaborative because if you just run your head against a wall you never get to a better outcome.
In the legislature, Senate President Mike Miller is someone I really admire. He’s in his 25th session as Senate President. Even though Maryland is a Democratic state, the breadth of Democratic party here is huge. It is just amazing how for 25 years Mike Miller has successfully led the state, balanced the budget and gotten stuff done, and I aspire to learn from that.

What are you doing when you’re not fighting for education reform?

I’m taking the bar this summer, so I’m immediately focused on that.

My wife still works for the school system. She’s still day in and day out on front lines of education reform. We love to go camping in a different Maryland state park each vacation.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.