Education Visionary David Hornbeck finds his ideas accepted outside Maryland

April 26, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

It's 7:45 a.m. on a Monday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- muffin and bagel vendors have shifted into high gear -- and David Hornbeck is deep into notes for a high-level meeting that will take place in another airport -- New York's La Guardia -- before he flies to a third meeting in Cincinnati.

David Karem, one of the Kentucky legislators who hired Mr.

Hornbeck in 1989, says his pitch is most alluring because he talks about the future of children, rather than education.

"My first and foremost reason to work with David was that he was the only consultant we interviewed who talked about kids. The rest of the people talked about systems, about delivery mechanisms, about agendas and technical stuff. David said kids were the only reason for the school systems to exist."

The 50-year-old policy maker has distinguished himself as a champion of special education students -- he recently developed a plan to reform New York City's special education system -- of gifted and talented students and, in particular, of disadvantaged students.

When he was state superintendent, he served as a witness for the plaintiff in Somerset vs. Hornbeck, the 1979 suit that claimed the state discriminates against poorer subdivisions in the way it funds education. The attempt to get more money for schools in Baltimore City and Somerset, St. Mary's and Caroline counties failed.

In Kentucky, the opposite happened. There, reforms were spurred by a state supreme court ruling that overturned the state's education funding formula as unconstitutional, requiring an overhaul of the system.

"Maryland has never come to terms with the equity of its funding," he says. "Sometimes I think the only way it will ever do the job it should do is in the wake of a successful lawsuit."

A finalist last year for the position of Baltimore City school superintendent, Mr. Hornbeck has no comment about the appointment of Dr. Walter Amprey to that post. Mr. Hornbeck does spend a lot of time discussing how to improve education for disadvantaged students.

He cites census studies showing that eight of every 10 new entrants into the work force by the year 2000 will be either female, non-white or non-American born.

"People don't understand their bread is buttered on the side of being successful with precisely the youngsters with whom we have not been successful in the past," he says. "They think that providing a good education to non-whites, non-males and non-American born is a sort of moral issue -- I think it is a moral issue -- but they don't understand that it has become an economic imperative. They don't understand that if we are not successful in the cities that, in fact, the states go down the tubes. And so does the nation."

Trained in theology and law -- he has no academic background in education -- Mr. Hornbeck went to college expecting to become a minister. A native of Knoxville, Tenn., he grew up in Longview, Texas, and he was graduated from Austin College in Sherman, Texas. He received theology degrees at Oxford University and Union Theological Seminary. Then he acquired what he calls "another union card" with a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

A job as executive director of the Philadelphia Tutorial Project in the mid-1960s helped prepare Mr. Hornbeck to become Pennsylvania's deputy secretary of education, a position he held from 1972 to 1976. He helped implement the landmark federal court order that established the rights of disabled students to a free and appropriate education.

Mr. Hornbeck's 12 years as Maryland superintendent -- considered an unusually long stint -- saw student Scholastic Aptitude Test scores rise, a tenfold increase in enrollment in gifted and talented classes, and implementation of a requirement that high school seniors pass competency tests before graduating.

He failed in his rigorous attempts to get a more equitable distribution of state education funds, to provide pre-kindergarten classes to disadvantaged students and to require high school students to perform community volunteer work. According to press reports, however, it seems that even opponents of his programs liked him.

New challenges

In 1988, when he turned down the state's offer for another four years in office (and a hefty pay raise), he told reporters he wanted to try "new challenges."

"I don't think David makes enemies," says Herman Behling, former assistant state superintendent and a professor at Western Maryland College. "I think each person who talks to him gets the feeling that they, and what they're interested in, are important."

Colleagues praise his intelligence and his integrity, but marvel at the way he builds consensus.

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