Politics and education: a natural match

January 04, 1998|By Elise Armacost

TO THOSE who cling to the misguided notion that public education should exist in some pure realm far above the supposedly dirty world of politics, consider the three people named Marylanders of the Year by The Sun last week.

They were hailed, deservedly, for their role in improving public schools. All have made their contributions within the context of politics.

Consider:

The Baltimore City schools reform package would not have happened without Del. Howard ''Pete'' Rawlings, a politician who used politics for good. He brokered the deal, persuading a majority of lawmakers that the fate of city schools is a statewide responsibility while standing up to city officials loath to accept that the price of a $250 million aid package is accountability.

State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, a committed educator, is also a consummate political animal. It is a measure of her political acumen that the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program has yet to be torn down by opposing factions. If the governor avoids all-out war over school funding in the upcoming legislative session, it will be because she has devised a plan for sharing surplus money that has won the support of Baltimore and Washington-area lawmakers.

Walter Sondheim Jr., a revered civic activist, has never aspired to public office but can hardly be called a non-political being. He is a friend of all manner of politicians and insiders; without those connections, it is unlikely he would have had such a lasting influence on schools.

Necessary interest

The point is that education is, and has always been, highly political. There is nothing wrong with this; it must be so. Local governments devote more than 50 percent of their budgets to schools, which compete with other basic services for limited resources. This year the state will spend $200 million on school construction; we expect lawmakers to fight for our share.

Public education is the one government service that both touches most people's day-to-day lives and (unlike roads or sewers, which citizens take for granted unless the snow doesn't get plowed or the sewer blows up) elicits constant, passionate interest. Recent polls show education ranks as the issue uppermost on voters' minds, which would seem to indicate that we expect elected leaders and candidates for office to talk about it and argue over it.

Yet we get squeamish when that happens. We fear that they're somehow ''using'' kids for political gain. Demogoguery and craven partisanship deserve contempt, but where education is concerned we often never get to the point of analyzing the content of commentary or proposals because a politician's very presence on education turf is considered a pollution.

A month ago Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ellen Sauerbrey stood in front of Baltimore's troubled Northern High School and talked of the need to do something about the lack of discipline, parental involvement and leadership that led to mass suspensions there. Some, including this newspaper, criticized her for trying to make political hay out of Northern's problems.

Perhaps her appearance that day helped her politically. That is beside the point. The question is, was what she did mere grandstanding? Is it wrong for people who aspire to lead to address the issue that matters more to citizens than any other? I think not.

Our desire for education free from politics hurts us more than we realize. In Maryland, we have given schools a degree of autonomy in an effort to protect them from the vicissitudes of local politics. There are merits to this; the most significant of which is that education decisions are made by those whose interests and allegiances are solely school-oriented.

Accountability missing

But in some jurisdictions excessive autonomy means a lack of accountability. Many systems, including Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, are run by superintendents appointed by school boards chosen by the governor, whose electoral base is so large that it's hard to punish him for a bad local appointment. Such boards are as intensely political as elected bodies -- sensitive to public whims, fearful of criticism, prone to behind-closed-doors dealings -- but exempt from political retribution.

It makes considerable sense for county executives to appoint board members; schools make up a majority of their budgets and ultimately voters hold them accountable for the condition of the education system. But this idea always runs into opposition TC from education advocates who say schools and politics should inhabit different worlds.

It's a noble-sounding bromide, but dreadfully at odds with reality and, as our Marylanders of the Year illustrate, not as advantageous as we imagine.

Elise Armacost is an editorial writer for The Sun.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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