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Rawlings undeterred by flak over school aid Children's education at stake, he believes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Howard P. Rawlings has heard the criticism. His legislative office regularly receives the nasty letters and phone calls. The president of the Baltimore school board called him a "hypocrite." Strangers have screamed at his daughter. Even his 73-year-old aunt mailed him a good scolding.

But here's a reply to the mayor, to the city school superintendent, and to all the critics who claim he is single-handedly doing great harm to Baltimore's children: Delegate Rawlings is standing firm.

"They think we're playing games down here. They think we should send money and mind our own business," said Mr. Rawlings, the influential Democrat from West Baltimore. "They have deluded themselves and convinced others in the community they are doing a good job."

Last year, Mr. Rawlings convinced colleagues in the General Assembly to withhold $5.9 million in state aid from city schools unless certain reforms were adopted. This year, he wants to cut that money altogether and may cause the legislature to withhold $14.6 million more.

As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Mr. Rawlings' authority over the state budget gives him the power to make such things happen. But while it is common to see state agencies receive such rough treatment from the legislature, Mr. Rawlings' tough stand with his own city's school system is unprecedented.

The question is why. While Mr. Rawlings is no great fan of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the two have maintained polite relations. His position likely has hurt him with voters. Even many of his fellow city legislators wish he would compromise.

"We can't continue to go down this road," said Del. Elijah E. Cummings, a fellow Baltimore Democrat and House speaker pro tem. "It's too painful."

Yet to "Pete" Rawlings, 58, backing down would be the worst thing he could do. He says he believes he has taken firm but reasonable steps to require greater accountability from the school system for the sake of its students. Giving in would be like passing a failing student.

Meeting a higher standard is how a postal worker's son who grew up in the city's Edgar Allan Poe housing project, earned a master's degree in math, became a college teacher, battled for equal opportunities for blacks on campus, was elected to the House of Delegates and worked his way into one of the legislature's most powerful posts.

"I'm not setting policy. I'm setting a standard of accountability," Mr. Rawlings said. "We must demand the best possible education for our children."

Mr. Rawlings grew up in a family where education was prized. His mother took classes at night to complete her high school education. The eldest of six children, he is a graduate of Douglass High School. His wife, Nina, a pediatrician, is a Dunbar graduate.

His children attended city high schools. One daughter graduated from Princeton at age 20. His son is a mechanical engineering major at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. His other daughter, Stephanie, elected to the City Council last year, is studying for the bar exam.

"Our parents always took an active role in our education. I was contemplating what college to attend in elementary school," Stephanie Rawlings, 25, recalled. "It's nothing but conviction that motivates my father."

An administrator at Baltimore City Community College, Mr. Rawlings is a bear of a man whose physical size and basso voice can be intimidating. But it is his intelligence, quick wit and charm that often win arguments in Annapolis.

"He's a big man, but somehow I think of him as impish," said Anne Scarlett Perkins, a former Baltimore delegate. "Politically, he plays his cards close to the chest, but sometimes you can tell by his smile and the twinkle in his eye, there's something else going on."

In Annapolis, Mr. Rawlings has been a staunch advocate for the poor and for the city, particularly when it comes to state spending. He tries to increase minority participation in state contracts and has been a force in higher education.

It is because he has a long history of fighting for the city and because he is black that Mr. Rawlings says he feels he is in a unique position to demand more from school administrators. A white suburban legislator wouldn't dare take this on, he said.

"You can't call me a racist. You can't accuse me of not being knowledgeable of city public schools," he said. "Because I'm in a position to raise these questions, it peels away some of the other issues that cloud the focus."

School administrators complain that they have made many of the management changes Mr. Rawlings has sought. Continuing the punishment ignores those improvements and is unfair to the staff and children, they argue.

Black legislators have privately suggested that Mr. Rawlings' stand has made him appear to be a tool of the General Assembly's white leadership. His position suggests that a predominantly black school system can't be trusted, his critics say.

Mr. Rawlings counters that Baltimore, with its shrinking population, no longer has its former clout in Annapolis. If the system wants to continue to receive huge sums of state aid -- more than $400 million annually -- it must produce higher test scores and lower dropout rates, he said.

"I have a responsibility to be assured that the money we send to Baltimore is having an impact," he said. "It's difficult for us to get support from our colleagues when they have no confidence in how we do business."

The school system does seem to be moving in the direction Mr. Rawlings has advocated. The state is poised to take a larger role in management decisions, depending on how negotiators settle school-finance lawsuits.

And Mr. Rawlings continues to have the full support of his committee despite his controversial position. Even city officials are loath to criticize him for fear of losing his support on other issues.

"If Pete Rawlings puts his mind to something, he is not going to be deterred by the fact he will take flak for it," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and an appropriations subcommittee chairman. "I just hope what happens out of this is that the money is better spent."

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