The Trial and Other Tribulations of David Hornbeck


David Hornbeck's appointment one year ago as Philadelphia school superintendent received national coverage and acclaim. The former Maryland superintendent was a pre-eminent national education consultant described in the New York Times as "Dr. Fix-it for ailing public schools."

Philadelphia would be a supreme test. Its school problems are the same as Baltimore's, only bigger -- 209,000 students (twice as many as Baltimore) who are 63 percent African-American, 10 percent Hispanic, with a 50 percent dropout rate and academic performance far below national norms.

Yet, as Dr. Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, put it, "If anyone can succeed in making a difference in a large city system, David Hornbeck is the one."

Baltimore has extra reason to be watching closely. Dr. Hornbeck was recruited by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for superintendent in 1991. Most community groups backed his appointment, but at the last minute the mayor retreated, primarily because of opposition in some African-American quarters to a white superin- tendent. Also, several school board members were put off by what they considered Dr. Hornbeck's take-it-or-leave-it agenda.

Those expecting fireworks in Philadelphia haven't been disappointed. In non-stop speeches and a mound of policy papers, he promised to "turn the system on its head. . . . Piecemeal, timid and slow reform isn't good enough," he said.

In short order, he produced an agenda calling for tough graduation standards, cluster learning communities and school-based decision-making, extensive staff development, pre-school readiness, community services in the schools and accountability for all.

Other school districts cite such reforms as long-term goals. Dr. Hornbeck urged them here and now in a go-for-broke challenge to the political establishment. The first-year price tag was $120 million, and, as he had done in Maryland, he challenged the state and city to provide the resources which, he said, "are an absolute prerequisite for dramatically improving student outcomes."

How has the white knight of urban education been received?

Very well. The mayor, legislators, advocacy and business groups and the media have applauded his vision and supported the agenda in principle. He reeled in a $50 million Annenberg grant which local foundations and businesses have pledged to triple. And the Board of Education awarded him a B+ grade in his first-year evaluation, stating "you solidly met our expectations."

Yet his position is precarious. "I know what he's asking for [in financial aid]," said the governor of Pennsylvania, "and he's not going to get it." An official of the teachers union told me that Dr. Hornbeck was "top-down and inflexible." A few education activists voiced concerns that the agenda was too focused on governance at the expense of instruction.

Most threatening of all, local Commonwealth Judge Doris Smith, who wields great power as a result of a desegregation case (in its 24th year) against the Philadelphia system, has her own competing agenda and experts.

In effect, Dr. Hornbeck has been put on trial. The judge, an African-American, wants all available funds targeted at "racially isolated" schools.

The superintendent responds that such schools are the highest priority but other urgent needs must be addressed. Because sufficient state and city funds haven't been realized, Dr. Hornbeck has chosen to implement his plan in only a quarter of the schools representing a cross-section of the district, Racial tensions could result.

Another sticking point is that Judge Smith so far has refused to order the state to provide more money despite the huge inequities in school funding between the city and surrounding suburbs.

Whatever the outcome of the law suit, Dr. Hornbeck could also be the victim of the high expectations he has created. He knows it. He hasn't gotten nearly the funds he sought, and his plans will be implemented piecemeal. In an interview, he expressed "my hope but not necessarily my conviction that there's enough of a reform mass to make a difference. We're doing all we can, not all we should be doing." But he doesn't regret raising expectations. "To do otherwise is to leave ourselves where we were, and that's not good enough."

Meanwhile in Baltimore, Walter G. Amprey, who got the superin- tendent job when Dr. Hornbeck didn't, has earned mainly national kudos (and been recruited by other cities) by pursuing a different strategy. Dr. Amprey has banked less on advocacy for additional money and more on achieving significant gains with the funds at hand, particularly through controversial privatization contracts. But test scores aren't rising much and local criticism is growing.

Though branching in different directions, both superintendents are out on a limb. To their credit, each is putting himself to the test. Can any urban superintendent overcome so many fiscal and socio-economic obstacles? As Dr. Hornbeck says of his own situation, "the jury is still out."

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore City School Board and education aide to Mayors Thomas J. D'Alesandro III and Kurt L. Schmoke.

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