Rawlings not a bad man but he did a bad thing

WILEY A. HALL

March 18, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

I am determined not to call Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings an Uncle Tom just because he co-sponsored a measure to cut funding to city schools. That would be an unkind, even cruel, thing to say about the poor man.

"Uncle Tom" is one of the worst insults one black can hurl at another. It would be akin to calling Del. Rawlings, D-City, a traitor to his race; a man who curries favor with whites by confirming their worst stereotypes about blacks.

The term conjures up images of a Stepin Fetchit-type character, grinning and shuffling and bobbing his head -- a buffoon, a fool, a caricature of a man.

Many in the city may call Mr. Rawlings these horrible things. Many may be ready either to impeach him or punch him out or both. But I am determined to be kind: Mr. Rawlings is not a bad man. He just did a bad thing.

Mr. Rawlings, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, helped author a plan to withhold some $4.8 million in state aid to city schools unless the system adopts administrative changes called for in a consultant's study.

The study, funded in part by Associated Black Charities and the Abell Foundation, recommended that school principals be given more autonomy and that the system implement a way to reward good teachers while dismissing or retraining the bad ones.

I say that Mr. Rawlings was an author, but some news accounts peg him as the prime mover and major instigator of the idea, which was proposed as an amendment to the state budget. Originally, the amendment proposed that the state withhold $28 million, but Mr. Rawlings and his co-conspirator, Del. Timothy Maloney of Prince George's County, decided that $4.8 million would be punishment enough.

According to Mr. Rawlings, the state is tired of "pumping" millions of dollars into the city school system without seeing better results.

The amendment "recognizes the frustration state officials have in sending millions into the school system with very little perceived improvement" in school performance or the drop-out rate, Mr. Rawlings was quoted as saying.

"It reflects an end to an era when legislators have historically written a blank check or just signed over the check and sent the money without asking serious questions and without demanding stronger forms of accountability."

Holding the school system accountable is a worthy goal.

But Mr. Rawlings' comments reflect a general attitude in the General Assembly that the state is lavishing money on the city that students, teachers, and administrators here do not deserve.

Every year, city delegates must fight the perception, implicit in nearly every legislative comment or policy, that school funding is a form of social welfare. The legislature appears to begrudge every penny spent in the city, as if every penny were a reward for indolence and inefficiency.

In fact, the opposite is true. The millions of dollars "pumped" into the school system are proportionately less per student than the millions of dollars pumped into nearly every other jurisdiction in the state. Maryland, for that matter, ranks near the bottom nationally in per-pupil state spending on public education.

While it is true that numerous studies have documented administrative waste and inefficiency, many of those same studies have conceded that city schools are so woefully underfunded that administrators constantly are robbing Peter to pay Paul.

It is hard to believe that the legislature's persistent misperception of city schools is not race-based, at least in part.

And while Mr. Rawlings hatches his mad schemes to punish the school system, city officials are considering a suit against the state alleging that schools are so underfunded that it amounts to a violation of students' constitutional rights to a quality education.

To its credit, virtually the entire city delegation has gone on record in opposition to Mr. Rawlings' amendment. Meanwhile, many of his constituents have been so outraged that they have unleashed the most dreaded of insults: They have called him an Uncle Tom, a Stepin Fetchit, a turncoat and traitor.

But not me. No way. I could never, ever bring myself to be so cruel.

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