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Resigned To Defeat

August 01, 2000 3 min read
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In a parody of musical chairs, superintendents these days leap from one district to another.

Every now and then, when I begin to think we’re improving schools, I’m painfully reminded that public education is a government-controlled, political institution subject to the vicissitudes, whims, ineptness, bureaucratic rigidity, and corruption that often characterize politics, particularly at the local level. David Hornbeck’s abrupt resignation this summer as school superintendent in Philadelphia demonstrates again the power of petty politics to trump constructive leadership and thwart reform.

Even when educators, parents, and students are doing what it takes to fix schools, the odds are against them. Governors, legislators, city councilmen, and especially, school board members—acting collectively or even sometimes alone—often obstruct positive change and feather their own nests at the expense of children. And we wonder why there is so much apathy and cynicism about the political system.

The irony of Hornbeck’s resignation is that, despite great odds, he was accomplishing the very things he was hired to do. During his six-year tenure, he made steady progress with his “All Children Achieving” agenda. He decentralized the 217,000-student district into clusters of schools. He raised standards and instituted all-day kindergarten. Scores on Stanford 9 tests climbed significantly.

All the while, Hornbeck was assailed by recalcitrant school board members, pummeled by the leader of the teachers’ union, and undermined by the governor and assorted state legislators. While lots of politicians in Philadelphia and the state capital of Harrisburg spouted reform rhetoric, Hornbeck actually meant what he said and fought like a gladiator to make his words reality. He pushed too hard and refused compromise on important issues. He couldn’t be bought or intimidated. He enraged politicians by charging in a lawsuit that the state’s school-funding system discriminates against minorities, proving that, in too many political circles, a person who tells the truth is dangerous.

Unfortunately, Hornbeck’s story is not unusual. In a parody of musical chairs, superintendents these days leap from one district to another, with one city’s goat becoming, if only briefly, another city’s savior. Bizarre and disgraceful political shenanigans—perpetrated by local officials as well as members of the U.S. Congress—drove successful schools chief Arlene Ackerman from Washington, D.C., to the welcoming arms of San Francisco. Any bets that she’ll fare better with Bay Area politicians? Diana Lam was transforming the struggling San Antonio district into a model system when a bickering board diverted $620,000 from the schools’ budget to buy out her contract. She was quickly hired to pull abysmal schools in Providence, Rhode Island, out of a swamp of neglect and political malfeasance. Can she walk the political tightrope there? We’ll see.

I had high hopes for Hornbeck. He is a man of great compassion and commitment who stands by his principles at all costs. I was attending a meeting with him on the Eastern Shore of Maryland the day the Philadelphia school board was deciding whether to hire him. He was constantly stepping out of the meeting to take urgent phone calls. During a break, we walked down to the edge of a tranquil Chesapeake Bay, and I asked him why in heaven’s name he wanted to take on what seemed like a thankless and impossible job. He didn’t hesitate: “Because I think I can help make those urban schools work for all the children.” And I believed him.

At one low point, Hornbeck told me that, if necessary, he would conduct a hunger strike on the steps of the state capitol to get additional funding for his students.

A few years later, at a low point in his ongoing battle with the politicians in Harrisburg, Hornbeck told me that, if necessary, he would conduct a hunger strike on the steps of the state capitol to get additional funding for his students. And I believed him then, too.

Although Hornbeck wanted to stay and complete his work, he quit because the governor and the legislature refused to honor the state constitution and cough up the money Philadelphia needs and deserves to provide its students with an adequate education. In the latest budget deal, sleight-of-hand accounting made it seem like there was no budget shortfall in the city’s schools, but Hornbeck wouldn’t play along. So now, Philadelphia will start all over again, creating the illusion that it really cares about educating poor, urban children.

Same old, same old.

—Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 2000 edition of Teacher as Resigned To Defeat

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