Lawmaker Gets Mixed Reviews in Drama Over Baltimore Bill

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Depending on your vantage point, Howard P. Rawlings is either a heroic school reformer or a sellout.

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To many education reformers here, the Maryland lawmaker is a master legislator who skillfully piloted a bill through the House of Delegates this month that will overhaul Baltimore's struggling school district. ("Plan Tying Increased Aid, State Control of Baltimore Schools Backed," April 16, 1997.)

But the Baltimore native has also caught flak from teachers and school administrators in the state's largest city who say the new law hands the state too much control over the district. At a Baltimore Teachers Union rally at the Capitol in Annapolis recently, a group of teachers shouted for his ouster.

Nevertheless, Delegate Rawlings, an imposing yet soft-spoken man, isn't rattled.

"I weigh other people's concerns, and then I move on," the five-term Democrat, who seems to thrive in turbulent legislative waters, said in an interview last week.

As the chairman of the House appropriations committee, Mr. Rawlings has helped steer other education reforms, as well as welfare-reform and tax-cut measures, through the chamber. But the Baltimore schools law is perhaps his proudest achievement.

The deal, forged in response to a long-standing series of lawsuits over equity and funding of the city schools, will funnel $254 million to the Baltimore schools over five years and give the state a greater role in managing the school system. Under the arrangement, the 104,000-student district will report to a new board appointed jointly by the mayor and the governor and set to take office in June. ("Md. Counties Take Aim at Baltimore Aid Proposal," Feb. 12, 1997.)

A graduate of the same Baltimore public school system that his three children later attended, Mr. Rawlings, 60, has consistently fought for change as the district's academic performance deteriorated. At least one-quarter of Baltimore's schools are performing so poorly that they are eligible to be reconstituted by the state. "I couldn't just sit around and bide my time when we have a system that has failed," Mr. Rawlings said.

Education as Liberation

To Mr. Rawlings, who was raised in the city's oldest public-housing project, education is more than finance and management. Good schooling, he says, is about freedom.

"I was brought up to believe that education was fundamental to your liberation as a person," he said.

The son of a postal worker who never graduated from high school and a mother who earned her high school diploma in night school, Mr. Rawlings attended Morgan State University here and earned a master's degree in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For years, he taught calculus and statistics at Baltimore City Community College. Now, he is the assistant to the college president.

His three children are all college graduates; one was recently elected to Baltimore's City Council.

Mr. Rawlings has learned that educational change seldom comes without a fight. Several prominent black Baltimoreans, including Rodney Orange, the head of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have charged Mr. Rawlings, an African-American, with abandoning his constituents.

Opponents also have claimed that the state's move for a bigger say in the Baltimore schools was motivated by racism. "We don't want to feel like we're being looked over by Big Brother and that we don't have the tools to look after a system that is predominantly African-American," Mr. Orange said last week.

Doesn't Shirk Battles

When Mr. Rawlings hears this argument, his smooth baritone voice goes up a notch in pitch.

"It boggles my mind when I hear these statements, because they criticize but offer no alternative plans," said Mr. Rawlings, who himself worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Many of the delegate's supporters say Mr. Rawlings' ability to withstand personal attacks is what makes him so effective.

"I've never seen him shirk from the battle," said June Streckfus, the executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education. "He knows deep within what's right," she said, "and his ultimate driver is not the polls, but what's in his gut."

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Democrat from Baltimore and a fan of her House colleague, said the schools deal couldn't have happened without him. "For white people to push school reform in Baltimore city would have been impossible," Ms. Hoffman said.

Supporters say that Mr. Rawlings' latest legislative fight might leave him vulnerable to challenges in the next election in 1998. But the math professor, weighing the matter carefully, expects that things will add up in his favor.

"When Election Day comes, people will see this decision was in the best interests of youngsters," he said.

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