“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.”