Gabrielle Massiah, 5, L, and James Parks, 4, R, talk with David Catania,… (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington…)
Two weeks after taking the helm of the D.C. Council’s new Education Committee, David A. Catania walked through the front door of Burrville Elementary School and started asking questions.
Why, Catania quizzed the social worker stationed in the lobby, were 11.6 percent of Burrville’s students absent for a month or more last year? What is the school doing to improve attendance?
The ensuing back-and-forth lasted nearly 15 minutes.
Not your average political photo op, the visit was the beginning of what Catania (I-At Large) promises will be a hands-on, full-bore effort to reduce chronic student absenteeism and improve the District’s long-struggling schools.
“I want to engender an outrage in the city about the level of truancy and educational failure. We’ve lost that,” Catania said. “We’ve all become accustomed to it.”
As education chairman, Catania occupies a powerful perch that hasn’t existed since 2006, when the schools were transferred to the council’s Committee of the Whole. They were later put under mayoral control. That arrangement, critics said, diluted lawmakers’ focus on education and shielded the topic from public scrutiny.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has resuscitated the Education Committee. Many observers hope that Catania — who is known for his intensity, and who already has assembled dozens of three-ring binders full of data on each city school — will force an honest assessment of schools’ performance and spending.
“To be able to really scrub the numbers, to see what is being spent, is really important and something we’ve been missing these last few years,” said Kathy Patterson, a former council member and Education Committee chair. “We’ve seen a lot of things go forward without a lot of tough questioning.”
But Catania’s new leadership position also has engendered some heartburn, including among labor leaders, who have never seen him as an ally. Catania has suggested, for example, that teachers rated “minimally effective” on annual evaluations be fired immediately instead of being given a year to improve, as they are under current policy.
Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said he hopes to establish a strong relationship with Catania but chafes at the council member’s stance on quicker firing.
“It definitely puts Mr. Catania at odds with the vast majority of teachers who have to perform this very difficult function every single day,” Saunders said.
Some activists fear the council member — a lawyer by trade who is not known for his patience — will decide what needs to be done without first listening to teachers, parents and others who have direct experience in education.
“He has a lot of ideas about what he wants to do with the committee,” said Cathy Reilly, a longtime D.C. education advocate. “What I hope is that he will allow those ideas to be impacted by the public and by the people whose children are in the schools, the people who have worked in the schools.”
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A Republican-turned-independent, Catania was first elected to his at-large council seat in 1997. He has built a reputation as a smart, hardworking and often sharp-tongued politician, equally aggressive with colleagues as with witnesses during contentious hearings.
He chaired the Health Committee for the past eight years, a period in which the proportion of uninsured D.C. residents fell by half. He successfully pushed to increase the number of publicly funded HIV/AIDS tests in Washington. The first openly gay member of the council, Catania played a key role in passing the 2009 law that legalized same-sex marriage in the District.
Catania gave up the health post and left a $240,000-a-year job at a local construction firm to focus on education.
He takes over at a critical moment for the public school system, which faces low enrollment and increasing competition from fast-growing charter schools. The city needs a thoughtful plan for how the two school sectors should coexist, said Catania, who believes the committee should help create a plan for the future of D.C. public education.
Another top priority will be wrangling school budgets, which he calls “a disaster” and a “hornet’s nest” of conflicting numbers. “My intent is to demand that every dollar we put into this system be associated with academic excellence,” Catania said.
The District’s traditional public school system spends about $800 million a year on 46,000 students — one of the highest per-pupil rates in the country. Yet fewer than half of the students are proficient in reading and math, and just six out of 10 graduate from high school in four years.
Catania has been careful not to blame Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, whom he said he likes and respects, for the system’s shortcomings. “We see the world the same way,” Catania said. “We find the educational outcomes and the lack of opportunity inexcusable, and the low expectations criminal.”