Hornbeck's test: Philadelphia

June 17, 1994

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.

Mr. Hornbeck seems suited to the job. He has never wavered from his support of city schools and city school children. Indeed, when Baltimore and three rural districts sued the state for a more equitable share of school funding in the 1970s, Mr. Hornbeck testified for the city, though as state superintendent he was the defendant in the suit.

Trained in the law and theology with no degree in education, Mr. Hornbeck has developed a no-nonsense theory of education that undergirded his "Project Basic" in Maryland and education reform in Kentucky, which he has been advising since 1989. It holds that schools should be measured against strict standards and rewarded if they meet the standards.

Maryland will miss Mr. Hornbeck's guidance. His many friends here will be watching his progress in Philadelphia and rooting for him.

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