School & District Management

Hornbeck Quits as Power Shifts In Philadelphia

By Robert C. Johnston — June 14, 2000 6 min read
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The shifting political power structure in Philadelphia and its school system in recent months culminated last week in the resignation of Superintendent David W. Hornbeck.

After years of rancorous and often fruitless battles with state lawmakers for more school aid, it was well known that Mr. Hornbeck was frustrated. In his view, the 217,000-student district—despite rising test scores—was not getting the money it needed from the state to fully implement his agenda.

But the city’s first-year mayor, John F. Street, recently called a halt to the bruising public dispute over school funding and began an effort with state officials to resolve their differences—a major change in local strategy.

The animosity between Mr. Hornbeck and leaders in the state capital, including Gov. Tom Ridge, was viewed by the mayor and others, including the superintendent himself, as a significant obstacle.

“I reached the conclusion that while they do that, it didn’t make any sense for me to share what I really think of the leadership in Harrisburg,” Mr. Hornbeck, 58, said last week in referring to the rapprochement. “I hope the mayor and the board will find a third way that will be successful.”

Mr. Hornbeck’s departure this summer will mark the end of a six-year tumultuous tenure for the former Maryland state superintendent, who came to Philadelphia with a national reputation as a thinker on education policy and an ambitious program for turning the troubled school district around.

His announcement came just days after Mr. Street, a Democrat, and the Republican governor reached an agreement to shift additional state money to the school district, easing the threat of a state takeover. (“Settlement Averts School Shutdown in Philadelphia,” June 7, 2000.)

Labor Talks Loom

Mr. Hornbeck, who had one year remaining on his contract, will stay on the job through Aug. 15. He said he had no immediate plans for what he would do next, except to spend time with his two grandchildren and possibly work on a book about his experiences in education.

He said he began receiving queries about openings in other districts almost immediately following his June 5 announcement, but said he is not interested.

An interim superintendent will be chosen this summer, and Philadelphia will launch a nationwide search for a permanent replacement, officials said.

Some observers who had heard speculation about Mr. Hornbeck’s departure said they were caught off guard last week by the timing because the district is negotiating a new teachers’ contract to replace the one that expires Aug. 31.

“My hope is that his leaving has no impact on what happens,” said Ted Kirsch, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “We’ve been negotiating, and we will keep negotiating.”

Mr. Hornbeck said he would stay involved in the talks and would be willing to help after Aug. 15, if asked.

Meanwhile, the future of his broad program for raising student achievement in the system remained uncertain.

“The question for us now is who can carry on and build upon his legacy,” said Shawn Farr, the acting executive director of Greater Philadelphia First, a group of business leaders that administered $150 million in school improvement grants for the city, including $50 million from the Annenberg Foundation. “He will be viewed as turning around the district and getting the focus on education and children.”

Children Achieving

In August 1994, Mr. Hornbeck was tapped by then-Mayor Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, to run a system that had long been battered by low test scores and financial woes.

Having worked on statewide education efforts in Kentucky and Maryland, Mr. Hornbeck arrived with many of the details of Children Achieving, his 10-point plan for turning around the district, already worked out.

Though not all of its pieces have been implemented, changes such as the adoption of higher academic standards and the start of all-day kindergarten have led to some encouraging results.

District officials were elated over the news last month that 58 percent of city 4th graders had scored at the basic level or higher on the latest Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition—up from 39 percent in 1996.

Mr. Hornbeck made funding and achievement the two fronts of his battle for better schools.

“What superintendents must do, and what David did, is enter with a focus on raising the achievement of poor and disadvantaged students and have a plan to do it,” said Wendy D. Puriefoy, the executive director of the Public Education Network, a Washington-based coalition of local education funds. Mr. Hornbeck is the chairman of the organization’s board of directors.

“But all the tools needed to help kids’ achievement eventually translate into more money,” Ms. Puriefoy argued. “In the case of David Hornbeck, he’s been clear about that.”

On the funding side, Mr. Hornbeck helped initiate a federal lawsuit against the state, charging that Pennsylvania’s system of paying for schools discriminates against minority students.

While elected state officials had bristled at the superintendent’s frequent calls for more money, it was the suit, and Mr. Hornbeck’s assertions that the funding problem had a racial component, that rankled the most.

“We’ve been clear that his rhetoric has been an impediment to progress here,” Gov. Ridge’s spokesman, Tim Reeves, said last week. “The idea of the district saying [school funding] is racist is outrageous. It’s difficult to overstate how much that was resented here.”

In an interview two days after he announced his resignation, Mr. Hornbeck remained unapologetic. “I never called anybody racist,” he said. “I think the funding system in fact is a racist system. There’s no doubt that it discriminates against kids of color. For some reason, a lot of people took that personally.”

Different Styles

While his uncompromising style earned him the respect of children’s advocates and many school supporters in the city, it may have become a liability for the new mayor.

Not only did Mr. Street campaign on an education platform, but voters also gave him the power last fall to name the entire school board. In the past, mayors were forced to work with board members appointed by previous administrations.

In addition, Mr. Street created the office of education secretary, and has made the school board president he appointed, Pedro Ramos, a more visible force in school policy.

“Mr. Hornbeck did not have the ability to negotiate with the major players—the state legislature and the governor,” said state Assemblyman Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat. “This is what Mayor Street and Mr. Ramos are able to do.”

The power shift was evident last month in the deal that gave the district enough money for the 2000-01 school year, avoiding a shutdown over the summer. In return for the funds, the district agreed to trim $30 million from its budget in fiscal 2001 from staff training, administration, and other costs not tied to student services. Mr. Street and the school board agreed to postpone for a year the school funding lawsuit.

Mr. Hornbeck said he would not have put off the lawsuit, but said he did not hold it against the mayor or the school board.

“The only other choice was to trigger a takeover by precisely those who demonstrate year in and year out that education in general, and education for poor rural and urban children in particular, are simply not the priority,” the superintendent said in his resignation announcement.

Debra Kahn, the mayor’s secretary of education, rejected the assertion made by some that the agreement with the state was in some way contingent on Mr. Hornbeck’s departure.

And, in a statement last week, the mayor lauded the outgoing chief as a successful reformer. “We brought Mr. Hornbeck here to help turn the system around,” Mr. Street said in a statement. “He and his team have started us down that road.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2000 edition of Education Week as Hornbeck Quits as Power Shifts In Philadelphia

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