City resents the burden of proving obvious need

WILEY A. HALL

March 30, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings says he's being unfairly "vilified" by the public, the news media and other Baltimore politicians for trying to put pressure on the city school system to improve.

Mr. Rawlings, D-City, authored a measure to withhold $4.8 million in state aid, to force school officials to get their act together and produce results in the classroom.

The gentler critics said Mr. Rawlings shouldn't try to micromanage the schools from Annapolis.

The harsher critics, me included, said he was selling out by doing the bidding of those white legislators who seem to enjoy bashing the city.

But Mr. Rawlings insists his stand is based on a sincere desire to improve the schools. Moreover, he says, "If I'm going to be vilified, then the mayor and the rest of the city delegation ought to be vilified, too."

Mr. Rawlings' point is this: Though his amendment to the budget threatens to withhold money from the city, another amendment with broad support would actually cost Baltimore an additional $3 million to $4 million in aid to education. And that measure was supported by the mayor and by most members of the city delegation, including Mr. Rawlings. Both amendments have passed the House and are likely to be embedded in the final budget for fiscal 1994.

"Nobody raised a peep about [the other amendment]," says Mr. Rawlings. "Why single me out?"

Good question.

The Rawlings amendment provided an inviting target. The mayor and the school superintendent attacked it. The rest of the city delegation rejected it. And some of Mr. Rawlings' constituents said his stand had strengthened the General Assembly's worst stereotypes about Baltimore schools.

And the other amendment? A spokesman for the mayor says it was a necessary compromise in the face of almost certain, deeper cuts in state aid to eduction; the city gives up $3 million to $4 million this year but hopes to get it back in Annapolis next year.

To me, this little-known trade-off seems less like a compromise than a betrayal. But when it comes to parceling out blame for Maryland's inequities in education funding, there are more than enough targets to go around.

Every year, members of the city delegation promise to fight an all-out battle on behalf of Baltimore's kids. The senators and delegates charge off roaring like giants. Yet every year something happens and the delegation comes slinking back, as whipped and dispirited as little mice.

For his part, Mr. Rawlings says he was only trying to break the "culture of complacency" that seems to have gripped school administrators and that was described so forcefully in a management study funded by Associated Black Charities and the Abell Foundation.

But the legislature seems caught in a tighter cultural mind-set than anything gripping the school system.

It is a culture of contempt for city officials, city school administrators and city students. It is a culture of contempt so blinding that legislators continue to complain that they are far too generous to city students when, in fact, the General Assembly behaves like a miser.

The city, home to so many needy students, ranks near the bottom among Maryland school districts in per-pupil spending. And study after study, while pinpointing management deficiencies, concludes that in Baltimore the state gets exactly the quality of education it pays for.

There's evidence that school management is not as bad as the stereotypical view from Annapolis would suggest. A study of Baltimore's educational bureaucracy, commissioned by Mr. Rawlings, noted that three-fourths of the city school budget goes directly into instruction. And administrative costs, the study found, account for only 5.1 percent of total expenditures, which compares favorably with other systems.

Mr. Rawlings, his colleagues in the city delegation and some local commentators fail to appreciate the rage that is building within Baltimore residents. People deeply resent the idea that city students, parents, teachers and administrators must prove that they are worthy to receive opportunities that other people take for granted.

Black residents, at least, heard the same line when they fought for the right to vote.

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