A right to be bitter

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

August 06, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Baltimore school Superintendent Richard C. Hunter was a bitter man when he left town last week, and who can blame him?

"I was," said Hunter passionately, "a political, educational scapegoat."

Hunter accused Mayor Kurt Schmoke of enticing him to Baltimore and then publicly undercutting his authority out of political expediency.

He said he felt betrayed, personally and professionally, and he said he would bear the scars of his encounter with the city of Baltimore for many years to come.

"Now we can understand why the mayor used the technique of publicly criticizing his superintendent of public instruction during the 1989-1990 school year. He was preparing for today," said Hunter on his last day in office.

"So now, it is done," said the deposed superintendent in tragic tones. "The educational sacrifice has been made. It is done."

Dramatic as this performance was, though, Hunter was only half right. He wasn't just the mayor's scapegoat, he was everybody's scapegoat.

Hunter-bashing was the city's favorite recreational sport for most of his three years in office -- the mayor, in fact, joined in the fun relatively late in the game.

And why did we hunt and harass and hound Hunter so?

For the same reason we enjoy any other sport: So that we could escape from reality. So that we could boost our self-esteem with concrete victories. So that we could relate with others through a common interest.

But most important of all, bashing Hunter allowed us to ignore, for yet another three years, the real problems of the school system.

So now, Hunter is gone. We don't have the quiet university professor to kick around anymore. And the problems are still here.

Most people would say that poverty-- severe, suffocating, debilitating poverty-- has been the school system's greatest problem for at least a decade.

And there's no doubt about it, the system is poor and likely to remain that way, bar some cataclysmic event.

But there is a problem deeper and more intrinsic than lack of cash.

The real problem is that the school system serves too many masters and that those masters have too many conflicting agendas.

The business community, for instance, wants a better-educated work force. Parents, on the other hand, want their children to have the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. The two goals are not incompatible, but neither are they identical. What type of employee is the business community looking for from the city? What types of opportunities do parents dream of for their children? Can the system answer both needs? Can it answer them simultaneously? If not, which needs are answered first?

Similarly, the system obviously needs greater resources, and parents with children in public schools probably would be willing to pay more taxes for education. But a significant segment of the city's population already has abandoned the system in favor of private or parochial schools. And a significant proportion of the suburban population fled from the city, in part, because of the state of the schools here. But having fled and having made a financial investment elsewhere, both groups deeply resent any attempt to funnel more of their tax dollars into an institution that, in effect, chased them away. Thus, the region's politicians are unable to mount a concerted push for greater state funding because their constituents are divided on the issue.

You can see how the entire school system and the superintendent and the mayor can get pulled in several directions by these competing agendas. You can see how a system can be paralyzed by acrimony, unable to move because it is unable to decide on a direction.

I believe this has happened in Baltimore, although the acrimony here usually remains carefully muted when we sit down to debate the state of city schools.

To the mayor's credit, his much ballyhooed "education renaissance" has been nothing less than an attempt to reconcile the conflicts and forge a consensus direction for the schools. Lesser politicians wouldn't even have tried.

But the mayor hasn't succeeded. Not yet. The conflicts remain.

Hunter didn't create these conflicts. It probably was unrealistic to demand that a mere superintendent of schools resolve them, especially since no one had the courage to acknowledge these conflicts out loud.

But we did expect these miracles, and now the man is gone.

0$ He has every right to be bitter.

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