Bill aimed at curtailing ‘social promotion’ is endorsed by D.C. Council panel

October 2, 2013

A bill that aims to end the “social promotion” of students in the District’s public schools passed a D.C. Council committee Wednesday.

The council’s education panel approved the Focused Student Achievement Act on a 3-to-1 vote. It also unanimously passed a bill that would clarify the duties of the public schools’ ombudsman.

The legislation was developed by David A. Catania (I-At Large), the committee's chairman, who has introduced a package of seven bills intended to reshape the city’s school reform efforts.

Some of Catania’s initiatives have been criticized by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, but council members generally praised Catania’s efforts Wednesday.

“The end result is one we can all work with, and that is one that will lead us to a better school system,” said David Grosso (I-At Large).

Under current regulations, students may be held back due to poor performance only after the third, fifth or eighth grades, meaning that students who have not shown academic proficiency are routinely promoted.

For third-graders during the 2011-2012 academic year, 96.8 percent were promoted even though only 39.3 percent showed proficient test scores.

“That’s ridiculous,” Catania said Wednesday. “I’ve yet to hear anyone defend it.”

Catania’s bill would allow a student to be held back by a school principal at any point, but only after the student is identified as at risk for retention by a teacher and given opportunities to catch up. For those students, summer school would be required for the first time.

“We don’t want children to pass just because,” said Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), speaking of the promotions bill. “Overall, this is great.”

Committee member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) opposed the bill, citing “grave concerns” about the council assuming a too-active role in classroom matters.

“We have stepped directly into the shoes of the D.C. school board that I helped and you helped to eliminate,” Wells told Catania, referring to the Board of Education disbanded by the council in 2007. “It’s not just a slippery slope, it’s a very large door we have opened.”

Catania said he chose to establish the promotion guidelines in regulations rather than by statute, meaning they could be more easily tweaked by the school system if necessary. “It leaves it for them, on their own, to make changes going forward,” Catania said.

A fifth committee member, Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), was absent Wednesday.

The second bill, the Parent and Student Empowerment Amendment Act, passed 4 to 0. It clarifies the role of the city’s schools ombudsman as a neutral resource for students and parents in both traditional public schools and charter schools who are seeking to resolve complaints. The bill also establishes a “student advocate” to “serve as a voice for the needs of public school students and their parents,” according to the panel’s report.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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