Two weeks after taking the helm of the D.C. Council’s new Education Committee, David A. Catania walked through the front door of Burrville Elementary School and started asking questions.
Why, Catania quizzed the social worker stationed in the lobby, were 11.6 percent of Burrville’s students absent for a month or more last year? What is the school doing to improve attendance?
The ensuing back-and-forth lasted nearly 15 minutes.
Not your average political photo op, the visit was the beginning of what Catania (I-At Large) promises will be a hands-on, full-bore effort to reduce chronic student absenteeism and improve the District’s long-struggling schools.
“I want to engender an outrage in the city about the level of truancy and educational failure. We’ve lost that,” Catania said. “We’ve all become accustomed to it.”
As education chairman, Catania occupies a powerful perch that hasn’t existed since 2006, when the schools were transferred to the council’s Committee of the Whole. They were later put under mayoral control. That arrangement, critics said, diluted lawmakers’ focus on education and shielded the topic from public scrutiny.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has resuscitated the Education Committee. Many observers hope that Catania — who is known for his intensity, and who already has assembled dozens of three-ring binders full of data on each city school — will force an honest assessment of schools’ performance and spending.
“To be able to really scrub the numbers, to see what is being spent, is really important and something we’ve been missing these last few years,” said Kathy Patterson, a former council member and Education Committee chair. “We’ve seen a lot of things go forward without a lot of tough questioning.”
But Catania’s new leadership position also has engendered some heartburn, including among labor leaders, who have never seen him as an ally. Catania has suggested, for example, that teachers rated “minimally effective” on annual evaluations be fired immediately instead of being given a year to improve, as they are under current policy.
Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said he hopes to establish a strong relationship with Catania but chafes at the council member’s stance on quicker firing.
“It definitely puts Mr. Catania at odds with the vast majority of teachers who have to perform this very difficult function every single day,” Saunders said.
Some activists fear the council member — a lawyer by trade who is not known for his patience — will decide what needs to be done without first listening to teachers, parents and others who have direct experience in education.
“He has a lot of ideas about what he wants to do with the committee,” said Cathy Reilly, a longtime D.C. education advocate. “What I hope is that he will allow those ideas to be impacted by the public and by the people whose children are in the schools, the people who have worked in the schools.”
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A Republican-turned-independent, Catania was first elected to his at-large council seat in 1997. He has built a reputation as a smart, hardworking and often sharp-tongued politician, equally aggressive with colleagues as with witnesses during contentious hearings.
He chaired the Health Committee for the past eight years, a period in which the proportion of uninsured D.C. residents fell by half. He successfully pushed to increase the number of publicly funded HIV/AIDS tests in Washington. The first openly gay member of the council, Catania played a key role in passing the 2009 law that legalized same-sex marriage in the District.
Catania gave up the health post and left a $240,000-a-year job at a local construction firm to focus on education.
He takes over at a critical moment for the public school system, which faces low enrollment and increasing competition from fast-growing charter schools. The city needs a thoughtful plan for how the two school sectors should coexist, said Catania, who believes the committee should help create a plan for the future of D.C. public education.
Another top priority will be wrangling school budgets, which he calls “a disaster” and a “hornet’s nest” of conflicting numbers. “My intent is to demand that every dollar we put into this system be associated with academic excellence,” Catania said.
The District’s traditional public school system spends about $800 million a year on 46,000 students — one of the highest per-pupil rates in the country. Yet fewer than half of the students are proficient in reading and math, and just six out of 10 graduate from high school in four years.
Catania has been careful not to blame Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, whom he said he likes and respects, for the system’s shortcomings. “We see the world the same way,” Catania said. “We find the educational outcomes and the lack of opportunity inexcusable, and the low expectations criminal.”
And Henderson carefully embraces Catania’s energy.
“I appreciate his focus and his intensity. I think he’s super smart, and I think he’s going to help push us farther, faster,” Henderson said. “I’m not afraid of the accountability.”
A focus on accountability could come quickly: Catania plans to introduce legislation to tighten test security measures, a response to persistent allegations of cheating on standardized tests between 2008 and 2010. He also aims to establish an independent authority to decide what should become of schools that have closed and are now empty — a constant source of frustration for charter-school leaders, who often struggle to find affordable real estate.
Henderson has argued that she needs those buildings, either to hold students whose schools are under construction or in the future, in case enrollment increases.
But to Catania, it is “madness” that the city shells out $100 million to help charter schools pay for real estate when there are suitable buildings that are unused.
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Catania’s most forceful push is likely to be in confronting truancy. Thousands of D.C. students, including children under 13, miss more than a month of school each year.
“The degree of chronic truancy that goes on in this city is breathtaking,” Catania said. “But no one seems much interested in fixing it.”
A D.C. law allows parents of elementary school students to be criminally charged if their children have two or more unexcused absences in a month. But that law is almost never enforced, Catania said.
He introduced a bill last week that calls for parents to be criminally charged when their children reach 20 or more unexcused absences in a year. They would be sentenced to parenting classes or community service at their child’s school — and if they fail to show up, could get five days in jail or a $100 fine.
Charges can be dismissed if parents swear under oath that they can’t compel their teens to go to school; that would trigger intervention by the District’s family court.
Some see such prosecution as a simplistic response to a complicated problem — and one that doesn’t address the root issues that keep students out of class.
“We know that the punitive approach doesn’t work,” said Suzanne Greenfield of Advocates for Justice and Education, a nonprofit organization that advocates for children and families. “We have to figure out why our kids are not coming, and we need to get them there.”
Catania believes the measure is a way to demand that parents take responsibility for their children. He said he and his fellow committee members — Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and David Grosso (I-At Large) — will visit the homes of truants in an effort to understand what keeps them from school.
Catania also wants to tour all city schools, both traditional schools and charters — an ambitious plan, given that there are more than 200 campuses across the city. His visit to Burrville, in Northeast Washington, was his first.
He arrived carrying a red pen and a three-ring binder filled with Burrville’s stats, and he walked away impressed: with the principal, with the teachers, with a room devoted to charting each student’s progress on every math and reading standard. And with the social worker, Anita Lewis, who thoroughly explained Burrville’s efforts to improve student attendance.
Lewis hadn’t expected the politician to ask so many questions, she said afterward. But once her nerves settled, she appreciated his interest.
“You can see he’s done his homework,” Lewis said. “I like that.”