Bogus city school issues hide real one: money

WILEY A. HALL

December 24, 1992|By WILEY A. HALL

We are nitpicking again.

Once again, we are engaging in a trivial pursuit about the micromanagement of the city school system while the big stuff, the truly important stuff, is left to hang. We are talking once more about "leadership" and "vision" and "perceptions" -- the same airy, nebulous concepts that doomed our last superintendent and divert our attention from the real problems that beset the schools.

Will we never, ever learn?

For the record, I will describe the latest crises if you promise not to yawn: As I understand it, the superintendent of schools and his staff came up with a proposal to separate all elementary schools in the city from all middle schools, a plan that would affect seven schools that now combine those levels. The superintendent presented the program to the mayor, got the mayor's go-ahead to make the plan public, and then did so. But when the public rose up in protest, the mayor overruled the superintendent and effectively killed the proposal.

Because of this, the mayor is accused of allowing politics to interfere with educational decisions, of undercutting the authority of the superintendent, and of fueling the perception that management of the system is in disarray. Similar issues arose during the tenure of former superintendent Richard C. Hunter.

But this question of leadership is a bogus issue.

The public's perception of the school system is not driven by whether the superintendent is autonomous or a functionary of the mayor. The public's perception is driven by a cold reality. City schools are underfunded and underprivileged. There is a tremendous gap in resources between the city and its suburban neighbors, and that gap is obvious to all.

The Abell Foundation studied this funding disparity a few years ago and found that every time the legislature has tried to address the problem by tampering with the state funding formula, the disparity actually grew. The study concluded, in effect, that you get what you pay for.

Last year, I attended a convention where a city teacher noted that in many ways city children work harder than their suburban counterparts and under more adverse conditions. They do a lot of copying from the blackboard because of the shortage of workbooks and duplicating materials. They are forced to study in older buildings that often are noisy and gloomy -- cold in winter and hot in summer. A continued shortage of "specials" such as art, music, physical education and librarians means that children are required to sit and concentrate in one classroom longer. They go on fewer field trips. They have less access to computers.

"Educators understand now that these things aren't luxuries but an important part of effective teaching," said that city teacher. "Our kids work as hard as anyone else, but so much of what city students do is remedial-- making up for the deficiencies of the system."

Parents aren't fools. They realize this. Some flee the city or are making plans to flee. Those who stay do so either because they have no choice or because they are committed to the benefits of an urban education in a multicultural setting.

The mayor, I suppose, could be more upbeat about schools. But covering up the problem offers neither leadership nor vision, and it doesn't make the disparity go away. Gov. William Donald Schaefer crushed all criticism of schools when he was mayor, yet parents fled anyway.

The primary issue confronting us all is whether the city should continue to cajole the legislature for more equitable funding or go ahead with a plan to haul the state into court. There is a consensus growing in favor of the court option but the mayor and other leaders are understandably timid about antagonizing an already hostile legislature.

These are issues worth examining. What are the city's chances of winning in court? Would the legislature retaliate? Would it be better to allow the city delegation yet another chance to beg and plead for a few more dollars from Annapolis?

In the meantime, it doesn't make a whit of difference whether the mayor calls the shots or the superintendent. Vision and leadership will not affect the public's ability to perceive the truth about the system.

It is all about money.

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