Councilman David Catania speaks with principal Tui Roper, left, and social… (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington…)
D.C. Council member David A. Catania plans to announce wide-ranging legislation Tuesday that could substantially reshape the city’s public education system, as he seeks to increase funding to educate poor children, give more power to principals, change the city’s school lottery system and end social promotion of children who are performing below grade level.
The legislation, a package of seven bills Catania drafted privately, represents the council’s most aggressive attempt to overhaul the District’s education policy since it approved mayoral takeover of city schools in 2007. Catania (I-At Large) described the proposals as an effort to build upon previous school reforms that aimed to spur student achievement but have instead left the city’s traditional public schools stagnating in recent years.
“So long as our school system fails, and it disproportionately fails poor people and people of color, it permits a culture of division,” said Catania, who in January became chair of the council’s newly reconstituted education committee. “If we don’t tackle this issue of the achievement gap, if we continue to relegate this city to a city of haves and have-nots that fall very hard across race lines, we’re never going to be the city we need to be.”
Besides funding initiatives for the city’s poorest students, Catania’s bills aim to boost outreach to parents. The legislation also would allow city officials to link standardized test scores and student grades — creating an incentive for students to care about the tests — and would create a new accountability system under which schools could be closed or turned over to an outside operator if they fail to meet improvement targets.
While some of Catania’s proposals could garner broad support, others are almost certain to face battles, particularly among council members who question whether the proposals overstep the legislators’ role in overseeing schools under mayoral control. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson answers directly to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
“I’m not looking to take authority away from the chancellor,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a member of the education committee. “I’m not sure we want to start legislating as if we’re the new school board.”
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), also a member of the education panel, said that even if Catania’s proposals do not pass, or if they undergo substantial revision in the coming months, they will drive needed debate about how to improve the city’s schools.
“What we’ve done in the District of Columbia is kind of triage. We’ve gotten books on time, we’ve paid bills, we’ve gotten buildings fixed,” Grosso said. “We’ve gotten to a point where we’ve got to say how are we going to move forward to improve outcomes for kids. And this will create the conversation we need; this will create the engagement we need.”
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said he looks forward to “massive hearings” on the proposals: “I agree with a lot of it; however, much of it needs further scrutiny.”
Henderson said Monday afternoon that she could not comment on the legislation because she had not yet seen it. Council members and Gray also had not seen the legislation as of late Monday.
Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro, responding to a summary of Catania’s proposals provided by a reporter, said that some appear to duplicate projects already underway. Administration officials announced last week, for example, that they are working with D.C. public schools and charter school leaders to develop a unified enrollment lottery.
“There are a lot of things that he has in this proposal that are good ideas, and we know because we’re already working on them,” Ribeiro said. “There are other items that are more troubling, that we have to look at the legislative language to see exactly where this is going to lead.”
Catania produced the legislation during the past three months with the help of outside law firm Hogan Lovells, whose work has been funded with private donations. The lead lawyer working with Catania has been Maree Sneed, a former Montgomery County principal who has taught education courses at Harvard University and served on the board of Teach for America.
The proposals emerged from the law firm’s research as well as from conversations Catania has had with parents, principals and teachers while visiting schools this year, he said.
Catania also invited Henderson and others — including philanthropist Katherine Bradley, Washington Teachers’ Union President Nathan Saunders and representatives from the D.C. Public Charter School Board, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the State Board of Education — to meet individually last month with him and the lawyers.