For years, David W. Hornbeck has been angling for the toughest job in American education -- the superintendency of a large urban school system. Now he'll get his chance. If all goes well, the former Maryland state schools superintendent will be hired June 27 as head of Philadelphia's public schools.
It's a job Mr. Hornbeck almost had in Baltimore three years ago, when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke asked him to become a candidate, then abandoned him at the altar in favor of a nonsensical troika arrangement that has since fallen apart. Badly hurt, Mr. Hornbeck nonetheless congratulated the winner and went about his business as a nationally respected education consultant.
Philadelphia will be a monstrous challenge. Any urban system would be. Social and economic forces combine to hinder all attempts at reform. Not one big-city school district can claim success, and Philadelphia is no exception. The nation's fifth largest district is twice as big as Baltimore, with a minority enrollment 63 percent African-American and 10.5 percent Latino. Poverty, violence and drugs plague the City of Brotherly Love, as they do the Monumental City. Philadelphia is in the midst of a budget crisis, and the city's teachers' union is a powerful force that engages in work stoppages with the frequency of dock workers.