For mayoral bid, Catania seeks to harness connections with District parents


Councilman David Catania speaks to parents and concerned citizens including, left to right, Eastern Senior High School PTSA President Chanda Bethea, Koko Barnes and Ella McQueen Lewis, following a PTSA meeting Jan. 24. (Evelyn Hockstein /For The Washington Post)

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) pledged to visit each of the city’s more than 200 traditional and charter schools when he took the helm of the council’s education committee in January 2013.

In addition to those visits — he passed the halfway mark earlier this year — Catania has spent many weeknights speaking about education with PTAs, civic associations and other groups that tend to be small but filled with voters. Meantime, he has introduced and helped pass education legislation on issues ranging from truancy to social promotion to funding for at-risk students.

Now Catania is looking to harness that work and the connections he’s made with moms and dads — many of whom have welcomed the council’s deeper involvement in schools — in service of his campaign for mayor against Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser. He is planning to announce Sunday the formation of Public School Parents for Catania, the latest sign of a push to turn education into his campaign’s signature issue.

“What people can expect, if I am elected mayor, is an intellectually curious person who will be relentless in raising standards and expectations,” Catania said. “It will be the entire focus of this government.”

As an independent, Catania faces a steep challenge in his bid to overcome the city’s overwhelming Democratic bent. A Washington Post poll conducted in March showed voters preferred Bowser to Catania, 56 to 23 percent.

It’s not clear to what extent public school parents, who are a small minority of D.C. registered voters, support Catania and can help him chip away at that margin. But in an earlier Post poll conducted in January, parents were more likely than the general public to give him a favorable rating.

Bowser, too, has promised to focus on accelerating school improvements, particularly among the city’s struggling middle schools. But she hasn’t been as immersed in the city’s education debates as Catania has been recently, and her critics say she speaks with less specificity about what is ailing city schools and what her solutions would be.

Catania’s “depth of knowledge of the entire system and the complex set of challenges it faces is really impressive,” said Alice Speck, a Ward 1 parent of two charter-school students. Before the mayoral primary, she invited Catania and many of the other candidates to her home for conversations about education with parents, educators and activists.

Speck is one of three chairmen of the new group; the others are Brian Cohen, a Ward 3 parent of students at Stoddert Elementary and Hardy Middle; and Katrina Branch of Ward 8, whose children attend Stanton Elementary. Beginning with a core group of about two dozen parents, they hope to recruit 1,000 others across the city to work for Catania’s election.

Cohen said he was impressed with Catania’s efforts last year to reverse deep budget cuts at Hardy and other city middle schools. He described himself as a “dyed in the wool Democrat” who had no qualms about voting for Catania, a former Republican turned independent.Some parents say they need to hear more from both candidates about their vision for the future of education in the District.

“Council member Catania is a laser beam. If he is pointed in the direction you want, that is great. If not, less so,” said Matthew Frumin, a Ward 3 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member and advocate for stronger neighborhood schools, who said he had watched Catania’s views on education evolve over the past year.

“Exactly where council member Catania would hope to point his laser beam as mayor hopefully will become crystal clear during the course of the coming campaign.”

Catania said Friday that he would push to ensure that schools receive extra funds for each at-risk student and that principals have the independence to decide how that money should be used.

He also would establish a new accountability system that would force low-performing traditional schools to publicly develop and implement turnaround plans. Under a bill that Catania introduced last year, and that he said would serve as a template for his efforts as mayor, schools that fail to improve over time could eventually be turned over to outside operators.

Bowser’s campaign manager, Bo Shuff, said last week that she was not available to answer questions about her education platform.

Over the past year, she has frequently spoken of “Alice Deal for All,” a promise to replicate the city’s most sought-after traditional middle school. She has not detailed how she would achieve that goal, but has said she would seek to accelerate middle-school investments and bring successful aspects of Deal to other schools.

In a written summary of Bow­ser’s views, Shuff said she would focus on investing in “brink schools” that are on the cusp of success and would seek to expand successful initiatives, such as a longer school day for struggling schools, anti-bullying programs and attendance initiatives.

She would also push the school system to explain how it is spending funds for at-risk students, and she would seek to require that charter schools offer a neighborhood admissions preference for children who live nearby.

Neither candidate has committed to keeping Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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