Major targets for Catania include streamlining enrollment lotteries for parents, adjusting how schools are funded and allocating more dollars for poor children, setting performance targets for schools and consequences when they consistently fall short, and outlining a way to decide the fate of vacant school buildings.
“We are on the verge of having an extraordinary public education system in the District that is comprised of charter schools and traditional public schools, but there are certain items that are prohibiting” that success, said Catania, who has referred to his effort as “Reform 2.0.”
“The most recent round of school reform wasn’t school reform as much as it was a change in management,” Catania said, referring to an era of change that began when Michelle A. Rhee became the city’s first mayor-appointed chancellor of schools.
“What I’m looking at is how we have reforms cascade into classrooms,” said Catania, who has been critical of the pace of school improvement under Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D).
Gray “welcomes the conversation” with Catania and hopes to work with the council member to avoid duplicating efforts, spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said.
“Some of the things he’s talking about are things that we’ve been working on for a while now,” Ribeiro said, pointing to an ongoing study of school funding and efforts to create a common charter-school lottery date.
Catania has retained lawyers in the D.C. office of Hogan Lovells, an international firm with wide areas of practice in government and industry, including K-12 and higher education. The lawyers will research school policies that have succeeded around the country, help determine what might work in the District and translate that into legislative language.
Catania, who assumed the helm of the newly constituted Education Committee in January, said he, his colleagues and their staff need the extra assistance because they lack expertise in public education and its thicket of local and federal laws and regulations.
“It really is an effort to help compress our learning curve,” Catania said. “There is a sense of urgency for me in getting education reform on the right track.”
It is not uncommon for council members to seek pro bono help from outside lawyers, but Catania set up a paid relationship with Hogan Lovells in an effort to accelerate the work. He is looking to raise $300,000 from private donors to pay the legal bill.
“The beauty of pro-bono projects, obviously, is they are done for free — but they are done on someone else’s timeline,” Catania said.
The Board of Ethics and Government Accountability has examined the arrangement and given its blessing, provided that donors certify that they have no expectation of special treatment, no attorney-client relationship with the law firm and no control over the legislation, according to an advisory opinion the board’s director, Darrin Sobin, issued in February.
Catania said he will file all related documents — including the donation agreements and engagement letter with Hogan Lovells — with the ethics agency in an effort to be transparent.
Still, some community activists said the infusion of private money is troubling and part of a larger trend of seeking donations to fund public endeavors. Donors have helped pay for key initiatives in D.C. education in recent years, including millions for teacher salary increases in the 2010 teachers union contract that promised better pay in exchange for reduced job protections.
“Are we not funding the government adequately to do the government’s work?” asked longtime education activist Cathy Reilly. A major education bill will touch many families’ lives, she said, and the council should seek input from community members — who have on-the-ground expertise in D.C. schools — long before a draft is written.
“The best model I’ve seen for bills that actually move forward are the ones that have early collaboration with the people that they are going to affect,” Reilly said.
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), a member of the Education Committee, said he will push for strong community engagement but supports Catania’s approach.
“I’m really supportive of getting experts involved, making sure that we’re really digging in and understanding all of our options,” said Grosso, who plans to send one of his staff members to sit in on regular meetings with the lawyers.
Grosso did not commit to supporting whatever proposal comes of the work, citing his concern about “heavy-handed testing and teacher accountability measures.”
Catania is interested in setting school “transformation triggers” — performance targets including test scores and other measures that, if not met, could result in a school closure, staff replacement or a takeover by a charter operator.
Besides writing new legislation, Catania also wants to weed out statutes and regulations that have become outdated or burdensome. One prime target for repeal: a measure that prohibits schools from holding back most students, which Catania says dooms children to failure, forcing schools to promote them to the next grade when they aren’t ready.
While some community members have called for a reexamination of mayoral control, Catania said he is more interested in tweaking the way the schools are governed than in a major overhaul.
“I’m not looking at wholesale changes — I think we’ve had too much of that,” Catania said. “I think a premium should be placed on stability, but with improvements.”
The council member, who is trying to visit every school in the city, said much of what he has seen in classrooms has impressed him. He said his conversations with activists, teachers and parents are informing his thinking about legislation and that community members will have ample time to weigh in on the legislative proposal after it is introduced.
“Whatever is finally passed may or may not reflect where we start,” Catania said.