ANNAPOLIS After two years of work, the Thornton Commission was ready to take a final vote on its plan for improving Maryland public schools when Delegate Howard P. Rawlings tossed a new idea onto the table.
His suggestion: Prince George’s County should be required to change the makeup of its school board before it gets any of the $1.1 billion in new education aid recommended by the commission.
Prince George’s County members of the commission responded angrily, telling the Baltimore Democrat he should stop meddling in their affairs.
Mr. Rawlings allowed the hubbub to continue a few minutes before quietly withdrawing his motion. But he had made his point, sending a signal to county school board members that he was not happy with the way they were running their schools.
The Prince George’s County school system is just the latest target for the man who may be the most influential black member of the General Assembly.
Using the power he wields as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Mr. Rawlings has taken on the educational establishment in Baltimore, sparred with administrators at Morgan State University and campaigned for legalized slot machines to raise money for education.
“He has never shied away from entering the arena and doing battle with what are often considered to be sacred cows, if you will,” said House Speaker Casper Taylor, Allegany Democrat.
“You can make a rather long list of the kinds of issues that are looked upon as untouchable. He’s willing to touch them in order to improve public policy,” Mr. Taylor said.
Sen. Robert Neall, Anne Arundel Democrat, describes Mr. Rawlings as “a courageous person in a position where that commodity is in very short supply.”
“A lot of people in political office are weather vanes, blowing with the political breezes,” Mr. Neall said. “Delegate Rawlings is one who stakes out where he thinks the state ought to go. Then he puts his considerable talent and effort toward that goal.”
At age 64 and in his 24th year as a legislator, Mr. Rawlings ranks near the top of the legislative hierarchy. He uses his position as chairman of the committee that handles the state budget to wield considerable influence over state policies, especially in the area of education.
The prime example is his fight with the educational establishment in Baltimore over management of public schools. It began in 1993, soon after he became chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
The school board and school administrators had lost their focus, were wasting huge amounts of tax dollars and were failing to give children a decent education, Mr. Rawlings said in a recent interview.
Mr. Rawlings and his committee, with support from Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Sen. Barbara Hoffman and her Budget and Taxation Committee, forced city officials to agree to a major overhaul in the way Baltimore schools were managed.
During the three years the legislature and governor pressured city officials to accept the change, Mr. Rawlings drew the ire of many black officials. “Most people who criticized me said I was challenging African-American leadership,” he said.
“I was getting notes from relatives in the school system, from powerful black leaders telling me my behavior was inappropriate and I was harming the children,” he said.
But the criticism waned as scores on performance tests showed children making remarkable gains.
“I had reservations at first,” said Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a black Baltimore Democrat who has had some differences with Mr. Rawlings in the past but describes him as a strong leader “with a brilliant mind.”
“What he and Senator Hoffman have done to improve Baltimore city schools will go down as a brilliant stroke,” Mr. McFadden said.
Mr. Rawlings’ willingness to use the powers of the budget against administrators he believes are not doing their jobs sometimes rankles even his admirers.
Two years ago he became embroiled in a dispute with black senators over his demands for a management audit of Morgan State University in Baltimore. During heated debate, Mr. McFadden criticized Mr. Rawlings’ tactics, saying the Appropriations Committee chairman considered himself “the emperor of Baltimore.”
Mr. McFadden later apologized, praising Mr. Rawlings for his accomplishments but adding, “Sometimes I think he goes a bit too far.”
In Mr. Rawlings’ current dispute with the Prince George’s County Board of Education, some county lawmakers say he is pushing too hard by insisting that the county change the way it selects its school board, which is now elected.
But Mr. Rawlings is unapologetic about his efforts to force Prince George’s County to adopt the kinds of reforms that have been put in place in Baltimore.
“This school board is dysfunctional,” he said. “This board is clearly not working in the interests of the children.”
Kenneth Johnson, school board chairman, said management of schools is not the problem. “It is that the state has failed to provide for Prince George’s County,” he said.
Mr. Rawlings said more money would help, but the board first has to spend wisely what it receives.
“There is nothing more precious to me than the welfare of our children,” he said.