Political will needed to reform the city's schools



Baltimore's search for a new superintendent for its (pick some: beleaguered, troubled, failing, under-funded, bureaucratized, rudderless) public schools has reportedly been narrowed to five finalists.

This process should be an enthusiastic search for excellence -- an opportunity to affirm that improved education really is the No. 1 priority of the numerous groups and powerful individuals who have said words to this effect in recent times.

Instead, past failures to meet higher expectations seem to have made nearly everyone involved in the process reluctant to set their sights very high this time around.

So, the city's latest effort to find a leader for its schools gives too many indications of being a defeatist effort -- a passionless repeat of past searches that seemed to please no one. The individuals and institutions involved simply seem to have lost a lot of heart and hope that either the financial resources or the political guts exist to turn around the schools.

Such pessimism is, sadly, well placed.

The state legislature has just turned down (once again) the city's plea for significant financial relief and turned aside the well thought-out plans for school reform articulated by the Sondheim Commission and given more precise form by State School Superintendent Joseph L. Schilling.

The city schools themselves, disheartened by years of promises and too many broken commitments, are struggling to deal with the apparent failure of outgoing Superintendent Richard Hunter to accomplish much of anything in his three contentious years here.

As a recently released history of the schools indicates, it hasn't seemed to matter much who ran the show or what types of reform they advocated. The only constant has been declining performance.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has taken plenty of lumps for his wisdom in hiring Hunter (not to mention the heat he felt for hustling Hunter's predecessor, Alice G. Pinderhughes, out of office). Only a cynic would suggest that the mayor, facing re-election this year, might just decide to sit this one out as much as possible, letting his otherwise powerless school board take any public heat for hiring the next superintendent.

This regrettable chain of events is of more than passing interest to businesses.

Today's students (and dropouts) represent tomorrow's labor force, and declining adolescent performance has an eerie parallel to the decline of U.S. business performance and issues of global competitiveness.

If business clearly has a stake in the schools, it's less clear what it should do about it. The Greater Baltimore Committee, both institutionally and through many of its business members, has been active in school matters for many years.

The GBC has actively lobbied for more support for the schools and more quietly urged city leaders to make needed improvements in school management. It has linked with black organizations to adopt laudatory programs that reward school attendance and performance and, through job guarantees to qualifying graduates, has tried to make a diploma a meaningful attainment.

Has it worked? Such shifts take time, but initial reports aren't exactly glowing. No one seems to really know.

For all its partnerships and public-spiritedness, the GBC, and most other business groups here and elsewhere, have simply not been very aggressive in rocking the boat and demanding meaningful school reforms.

The GBC did recently strengthen its call for better schools, including a "down-the-road" state takeover of the city's schools if progress is not forthcoming. But such saber-rattling carries only a vague time frame and has not yet been accompanied by specific performance expectations.

Belatedly, more and more business people are coming around to the view that more drastic school reforms are needed and that business can play, indeed may be destined to play, a pivotal role in this process.

David W. Hornbeck, who was state school superintendent for a dozen years, worked closely with the Business Roundtable when that national group of 200 blue-chip corporations adopted last September a long-term (10 years) commitment to major changes in public education. The group's nine-point platform is summarized above, and is worth a few minutes' scrutiny.

Mr. Hornbeck also played an important consulting role in Kentucky's recent adoption of reforms that closely track the goals laid out by the Business Roundtable.

Having taken what he clearly feels is more than his fair share of lumps here during his years on the front lines of the fight over education reform, Mr. Hornbeck declined in a recent interview to weigh in with specific advice for Baltimore.

But he does feel the business community here, and elsewhere, can play crucial roles in improving schools.

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