Rawlings: Doing a Good Thing in a Bad Way

BARRY RASCOVAR

March 28, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, one of the most powerful men i the House of Delegates, was recently portrayed by a columnist as an Uncle Tom. It was a mean-spirited portrayal, one so wide of the mark it defies logic.

What the fuss is all about is Mr. Rawlings' refusal to parrot the tired line from city officials that all's right with the Baltimore City school system and that the system is on the road to recovery; all that's needed is more money. Instead, Mr. Rawlings had the effrontery to point out that in this case, the emperor has no clothes, that the city school system remains appallingly inferior compared with every other school system in Maryland.

That position now has been represented as a betrayal of black aspirations in Baltimore City, as a betrayal of a black mayor and a black school superintendent. This is a narrow-minded viewpoint, one that takes the black pride movement into a fantasy land where pleasant-sounding fiction starts replacing unpleasant reality.

Few elected officials are more strident in their black empowerment stance than Pete Rawlings. He has not been above flexing his political weight to advance this special interest. And he's frank to admit it.

Yet he's also intellectually honest. As an educator, Mr. Rawlings knows darned well that the city's schools are still floundering. Progress in turning the situation around has been agonizingly slow. And the pressure in Annapolis is building to accelerate the progress -- or to stop pumping money into a black hole.

Money alone won't change things. Smart management might. That's the gist of Mr. Rawlings' effort to get the schools to implement a wide-ranging list of changes recommended by a consultant. Some of these suggestions have been adopted; others are likely to be imposed in the months ahead. But Mr. Rawlings is frustrated by the slow pace.

So he came up with a proposal to withhold $28 million in state school aid until the consultant's recommendations are fully implemented. That figure was later reduced to $4.8 million, and approved by the House of Delegates over the impassioned opposition of black city legislators and some other colleagues.

There is a persuasive argument that the Rawlings plan amounts to unacceptable state interference in local school matters, that the state should keep its nose out of the local schools and should not attempt to micro-manage any city or county school system.

But that's not the same thing as calling Mr. Rawlings a turncoat to his race.

Mr. Rawling's proposal -- ham-handed though it may be -- is sending a sharp wake-up call to Mayor Kurt Schmoke and School Superintendent Walter Amprey. It gives them an early warning signal that legislators in Annapolis, especially from outside the city, are losing patience with the snail-like progress in the city schools. And it also should tell them that even their most committed allies in the State House are fed up.

That's got nothing to do with race. It's got everything to do with giving children in Baltimore a chance at a quality education.

As black politicians rise ever-higher on the scale of elective offices in Maryland, they must make the transition away from parochialism. Mr. Rawlings' position as chairman of the Appropriations Committee means he must think in statewide terms, not just West Baltimore terms. And in statewide terms, the city's disgraceful school situation cries out for strong remedies, not mindless cheerleading for the city's black empowerment efforts.

If Mr. Rawlings succeeds in moving up to Speaker of the House in 1995 -- an effort that may have been enhanced by the unwillingness to echo the city's party line on the Baltimore school situation -- he'll be faced by countless similar predicaments in which the needs and desires of his city district may not be what is best for the state. Similarly, if Mayor Schmoke were elected governor in 1995, he'd quickly discover the city's wish list is often not in the best interest of the rest of Maryland.

Look at what happened to the biggest city cheerleader of them all, William Donald Schaefer. He was vehemently rebuffed in his first effort to help the city schools when he suggested the state conduct a study and then help the city fix its education system. He was vilified by his former close allies in the city.

Since then, Mr. Schaefer often has had to take the wider view, relegating the city's interests to a secondary position. Or he's had to suggest ways of approaching problems that are at odds with the approach of the city administration.

Now Mr. Rawlings has tried to do the same thing -- and has gotten slammed unfairly in the process. But that doesn't make him any less of a city supporter. And it certainly doesn't make him an Uncle Tom. When you start playing in the top echelons of state government, that kind of parochial mind-set and blind loyalty no longer works.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.

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