D.C. Council tentatively approves bill intended to end social promotion

The D.C. Council on Tuesday gave tentative approval to a bill intended to end social promotion in the District’s public schools.

The measure, which Education Committee Chairman David A. Catania (I-At Large) proposed, would repeal a rule that requires most District elementary and middle school students to be passed from one grade to the next regardless of achievement or performance.

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If the Focused Student Achievement Amendment Act wins final approval next month, school officials would have latitude to decide whether a child is ready to advance to the next grade. Students who are retained would be required to attend summer school unless specifically excused by school officials.

“These decisions are best made by the teacher, the principal and the chancellor, as opposed to the existing regulation,” Catania said. He said the existing rules, which permit schools to fail students only in grades three, five and eight, allow students to advance to the next grade “simply by breathing.”

Catania said the policy has led to a systemwide habit of promoting struggling students, who reach high school, find themselves unable to keep up and drop out.

Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) raised concerns that the council was overreaching, given that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is responsible for city schools. But Gray expressed his support for the bill in a letter this week, and Wells joined the rest of his colleagues in a unanimous vote in its favor.

The council also gave tentative approval Tuesday to a second Catania bill, the Parent and Student Empowerment Amendment Act. It would clarify the role of the public education ombudsman as a neutral party responsible for helping mediate disputes involving families and schools, both traditional and charter schools.

The bill, if given final approval next month, also would create an office of the student advocate, which would be responsible for helping parents and students choose from and navigate through the city’s public schools.

The council voted unanimously for the measure without any debate, except for a brief endorsement from David Grosso (I-At Large). The council has pushed to revive the ombudsman position, which had been empty and unfunded for several years, in the fiscal 2014 budget. The office is slated to open in January, and officials plan to hire an ombudsman in the coming weeks

In his letter to the council, Gray expressed support for the concepts of the ombudsman and the student advocate, but he seemed less certain about paying for them.

“Though this bill is subject to its inclusion in a future budget and financial plan, the ideas it incorporates are important,” Gray said.

The two bills are among at least eight that Catania introduced this year, in what he said was an effort to refine previous efforts to improve city schools and lift student achievement. At 2 p.m. Wednesday, the Education Committee is scheduled to mark up a bill that would indicate how and when vacant school buildings should be leased to charter schools.

 
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