D.C. Council member David A. Catania’s ambitious plan to overhaul city schools drew mixed reactions at five recent hearings, with parents and activists praising the lawmaker’s urgency but voicing concern that some of his proposals may carry unintended consequences.
Advocates for the traditional school system offered some of the most pointed criticism, arguing that Catania’s legislation could accelerate the rise of charter schools and the withering of neighborhood schools.
“I strongly urge you not to rush,” said longtime education activist Cathy Reilly, testifying Thursday during the last of the five hearings. “These bills represent as large a change as the shift to mayoral control. I don’t think your colleagues on the council or the citizens of the city understand what they will mean.”
Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the education committee, said he understands advocates’ concerns but believes that the city’s school system, which has attracted a declining share of students in recent years, is headed for a “death spiral” unless it shows meaningful achievement gains that persuade parents not to flee.
“We’ve put forward a serious proposal that I believe will help stabilize DCPS schools,” he said. “If you are not in support of what I propose, then what is your alternative?”
Catania’s seven bills touch on a range of issues, including how students should be promoted or retained; how vacant school buildings should be transferred to charters; and how the city should help parents navigate the city’s education choices.
But the proposals center on a key trade-off: All schools would get more money for students from low-income families, who often come to class with greater challenges than their affluent peers.
And in return, all schools would have to meet performance targets in order to continue operating.
While charter schools already must meet certain targets to keep their doors open, Catania’s bills would create a new set of standards for traditional schools. Struggling schools would be required to write turnaround plans and make measurable progress toward their goals. Those that fail would be closed or turned into charter-like “innovation schools,” free of certain municipal regulations and union work rules.
That proposed accountability system is among the most controversial of Catania’s ideas, drawing pushback from both community activists, who fear that neighborhoods would lose their schools, and from Gray administration officials.
But Catania, who has said that the threat of closure can inspire a school to improve, said he believes his proposals are the right way to go.
“I didn’t hear anything in the course of these many days of hearings that made me second-guess the direction that we are going,” he said. “It’s a matter of fine-tuning and tweaking and perfecting what was introduced.”
The debate will continue at community meetings that Catania is holding in each of the city’s eight wards over the next several weeks. He said the public input will help him create a revised set of proposals to be released when the council returns from its summer recess in September. He hopes his colleagues will vote on the measures sometime in the fall.
Several of Catania’s proposals drew broad praise from activists, including a measure to create a new office of the student advocate, which would run parent education centers around the city, and to strengthen the role of the education ombudsman, who mediates disputes between families and schools.
Activists also welcomed Catania’s push to increase per-pupil allocations for poor children, arguing that schools need the extra resources to meet the intense needs of kids who grow up in poverty.
The legislation does not specify how many extra dollars would be allocated for each of those categories, and activists urged Catania to wait for the results of a study on school funding that was commissioned by the Gray administration and is expected in September. Catania said he would like to see schools receive about 15 percent extra for every poor child they enroll — or about $1,400 extra per child based on current funding levels.
That would cost the District close to $80 million based on the current number of low-income students enrolled in city schools. It’s not clear whether council members would be receptive to such a large increase.
Another key subject of discussion during the recent hearings, held during the first two weeks of July, was a proposal by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) to give Chancellor Kaya Henderson the power to approve new charter schools.
Henderson has said she needs chartering authority as a tool to bring in outside operators to turn around low-performing schools. But the proposal has spurred resistance from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Robert Cane of the pro-charter Friends of Choice in Urban Schools said chancellor-authorized schools would be a diluted version of charters, lacking real independence from the government.
Elizabeth Davis, president-elect of the Washington Teachers Union, argued that chartering authority “gives the chancellor an excuse” for not doing the hard work of coordinating with teachers and parents to improve schools.
Davis, calling the growth of charters a “crisis” for the traditional school system, pressed Catania to consider limiting the number of charters allowed to open each year. That argument was echoed by Capitol Hill parent Suzanne Wells, who said that charters continue to open without any effort to understand their impact on existing schools.
Catania said he would not support a moratorium or new limit on the number of charters.
“I don’t believe that the answer to improving DCPS schools is closing the opportunity for additional choice,” he said.