“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.
Catania did not offer a full outline of his proposals at those meetings, which a reporter from The Washington Post observed. Instead, he asked attendees to respond to a series of questions in attempts to gauge support for individual parts of his plan. Their responses informed the final draft of the legislation, Catania said.
Henderson, in an interview after her meeting with Catania on May 20, said she walked in expecting to be briefed on the team’s progress and proposals.
“You can imagine my surprise when I sat down and got asked a bunch of policy questions that had huge implications that I didn’t have time to prepare for,” she said.
Catania also met with council members Grosso, Wells and Barry, but he did not meet with Gray. The two discussed a meeting in late May, according to e-mails exchanged by their staffs, but Gray wanted to meet one-on-one and Catania insisted that Hogan Lovells lawyers be allowed to attend. And he met with council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who said he thinks “it’s a good package.”
In those meetings, Catania demonstrated a desire to hold students and adults accountable for their work. He is seeking to repeal a regulation that prohibits most students from being held back. Instead, he would allow principals to decide who should be promoted, a proposal likely to be controversial in a city with low proficiency rates.
Unless a principal recommends otherwise, third- through eighth-grade students would be held back if they fail to pass certain classes. The legislation calls on principals to notify parents mid-year when their child is at risk of being held back and to prepare a plan for helping that child catch up. Children who are retained would be required to attend summer school unless their parents seek a waiver.
Another bill would raise per-pupil funding for children who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, a common measure of poverty, as well as for students enrolled in career and technical education programs and schools with low graduation rates.
Those increases aim to provide strong job-training programs for teens not bound for college and acknowledge that schools with high concentrations of poor children face substantially different challenges, Catania said.
The legislation doesn’t specify how many additional dollars should be allocated, but the cost is likely to be substantial. “It will take additional investment,” Catania said.
Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith questioned whether it makes sense for the council to legislate funding changes given that her office has already commissioned a study to determine what changes are necessary to ensure adequate funding at city schools.
“We think it makes a lot more sense to have a comprehensive look before making new policy recommendations,” Smith said.
Catania is also proposing to send 80 percent of local funds directly to principals — instead of having that money flow through the schools’ central office — giving individual school leaders greater freedom to design their own budgets. It’s an approach modeled on Baltimore City’s budgeting, and one that would give principals the ability to meet their communities’ individual needs, Catania said.
But it also runs counter to Henderson’s efforts to ensure equitable offerings across the city by mandating certain programs, such as foreign language, at all schools. And it raises questions about whether principals, who are trained in education, would have the tools necessary to manage budgets as well.
Catania proposes an alternative to Gray’s plan to give Henderson the authority to approve new charter schools, instead pushing “innovation schools” that could request freedom from the teachers union contract and burdensome regulations. Such schools would continue to be part of the traditional system.
Catania also proposes that the Office of the State Superintendent of Education create a performance metric for traditional schools, which could include a number of measures, including test scores and attendance rates. Should a school fail to meet performance targets for two years, the chancellor would be able to turn it into an innovation school or ask the principal to develop a turnaround plan in consultation with teachers, parents and community members.
If, after three more years, the turnaround school was failing to meet its improvement targets, the chancellor would be required to either close it, turn it over to an outside operator or turn it into an innovation school.
Catania is also seeking to make it easier for the D.C. Public Charter School Board to close schools with low test scores.
Finally, Catania is proposing a new Office of the Student Advocate that would run parent education centers across the city, offering help navigating traditional and charter schools. The advocate would help represent parents before the public education ombudsman, who is charged with resolving student complaints.
Catania’s staff is soliciting feedback on the proposals online and plans to schedule hearings before the council’s summer recess.Catania said he welcomes the input and recognizes that his proposals could undergo radical changes before a final vote.
“Everything we’re doing here, I might have it completely wrong,” Catania said. “But at least I’m trying.”