We often castigate our politicians for their reliance on sugary symbolism over substance. Heaven help our leaders, though, when they deliver us negative symbolism.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has been criticized in some quarters for deciding to transfer his 11-year-old daughter, Katherine, from public to private school. If the mayor is withdrawing his child from the public school system, some argue, what parent could be expected to support it?
For the mayor, it is an extremely difficult call. The corrosion of the schools is one of the paramount problems in his city, if not all of Maryland. The system's poor reputation continues to melt the city's middle class, weakening Baltimore and, by turn, the whole region.
Many of the mayor's constituents feel they've made their own personal sacrifices to maintain residence in the city and support the public schools. Baltimore's teachers too feel that they have placed their professional commitment to the city above the opportunity for better salaries and conditions at suburban schools.
But the mayor's decision is not a damnation of the public schools. It is a matter of his being a father first. If voters criticize his action, so be it, he says. He'll be his daughter's father long after he's stopped being this city's mayor. He need not apologize. The circumstances are personal, not political.
Because he is a very public figure, Mr. Schmoke had to publicly announce that he and his wife were transferring their daughter next fall to the private Roland Park Country School from Roland Park Elementary/Middle School. The Roland Park public school is among the city system's best. The mayor's decision doesn't change that. But middle school can be a difficult transitional period for kids, and being the child of a high-profile father does not simplify adolescence.
Residents have a right to demand that the mayor put his professional life, not his personal one, on the line for the schools, and he's doing so. He has vowed to sue the state to force greater financial aid for the system even if that action serves to alienate him from suburban Washington legislators whom he'll need later in his political career. He abandoned his support of Richard C. Hunter when he felt the former superintendent wasn't doing enough to overhaul the troubled system. And, he's backed the pro-active moves of the current superintendent, Walter G. Amprey, including the recent hiring of a private firm to take over nine public schools next year.
Kurt Schmoke the politician did not create the decay in the city schools, which he is working to address. Kurt Schmoke the parent should not have to hold himself to a standard that no other parent or city employee must meet. Baltimore City's school system may have ills of historic proportion, but that doesn't mean that to demonstrate his commitment, the mayor has to abandon his role as a caring father.