D.C. parents, activists offer mixed reaction to Catania's bills

D.C. Council Member David Catania (I-At Large) scheduled four hearings this month to give the public a chance to weigh in on legislation that aims to lift student achievement across the city.

He allotted eight hours for each hearing, but so far he hasn’t needed nearly that much time. Catania’s bills have the potential to reshape public education in the District, but they haven’t yet stirred enough passion to draw throngs to the Wilson Building in the dog days of July.

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Nine parents, activists and school leaders showed up Monday to testify on bills to improve parent engagement and create a more independent Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Last week, a dozen people spoke about bills related to school facilities and enrollment lotteries.

Turnout may increase Tuesday for a hearing on some of Catania’s most controversial proposals, including a new local accountability system that would require DCPS schools to be closed or turned into charter-like “innovation schools” if they fail to meet performance targets.

Like Gray administration officials — who testified in a separate hearing on July 2 — members of the public have offered mixed reaction to Catania’s proposals in the first two hearings, July 3 and July 8. Here are four main themes that emerged:

Charter school advocates like Catania’s facilities bill.

Under current law, charter schools are supposed to get first dibs on surplus traditional school buildings. But some empty DCPS schools have ended up in the hands of developers, while others have sat vacant for years.

Meanwhile, charters continue to open in church basements and converted commercial spaces that lack gyms, cafeterias and other features that parents expect in a school.

“The problem of charter school access to facilities has been one of the most wearying problems that I’ve had to deal with,” said Robert Cane of the pro-charter group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.

Gray administration officials recently announced that they plan to release more than a dozen DCPS buildings to charters, but Catania argues that the city needs an ongoing and systematic process to dispose of buildings.

His bill requires the DCPS chancellor to issue five-year facilities plans explaining which buildings the school system needs. The bill also outlines a process for transferring surplus DCPS buildings to charters and gives the D.C. Public Charter School Board a right to take the city to court if it feels the chancellor is wrongly holding onto buildings.

Cane called the proposal “much needed and long overdue.”

Critics argue that the facilities bill is shortsighted and hastens the transfer of public assets into private hands.

Catania's bill misses the point, said Mary Filardo of the 21st Century Schools Fund, an expert in school facilities. The problem is not that charters don’t have enough access to buildings, she said, but that the District has no comprehensive plan for facilities and ends up using school buildings and capital dollars inefficiently.

Filardo said she's also concerned that if Catania’s bill becomes law, 40 years from now, the city will have disposed of so many of its buildings that it will no longer have the public school buildings it needs to educate kids.

“What’s drawn here is very narrow,” Filardo said. “It’s a one-way street out of the public sector into the private sector over many years.”

Catania pushed back, arguing that charter schools typically lease surplus buildings for 25 years — not forever.

He also shrugged off the suggestion that his bill should have paved the way for a more comprehensive approach to facilities planning, saying that the measure was only meant to ensure that the city observes existing law giving charters right of first refusal to DCPS buildings.

“It was never introduced as a way to reach nirvana for public facility planning,” he said.

Catania seemed more open to an argument from Matthew Frumin, a parent and former candidate for D.C. Council, that the bill should require charter schools, like DCPS, to share data on facilities use and future needs.

“That could be very powerful,” Catania said. “I think it will help illustrate for planning purposes what’s coming down the pike.”

Activists want greater independence for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

A provision in Catania’s governance bill would make the State Superintendent of Education dismissible only for cause and by vote of the State Board of Education.

It’s a wonky tweak that Ken Archer, a D.C. parent who contributes to the blog Greater Greater Washington, argues would make a big difference, insulating OSSE from the mayor and giving the agency greater latitude to make politically difficult decisions on issues such as closing schools and investigating cheating.

Greg Masucci, a parent of a special-needs child, also spoke in favor of the measure.

Masucci is battling the school system, arguing that his son is regressing in public school and has a legal right to a private-school placement. He argued that OSSE hearing officers charged with deciding such cases cannot be unbiased when they work for a mayor who came into office promising to cut the number of private placements in half by 2014.

D.C. officials have said that the city’s schools are equipped to serve more children with disabilities than in the past, and that it’s often in those students’ best interest to integrate with non-disabled children in public schools. They oppose Catania’s measure, arguing that it infringes on mayoral control of the schools.

Activists also support Catania’s parent engagement bill — but say it doesn’t go far enough.

Catania’s bill would establish a new “office of the student advocate” that would run four parent education centers across the city, offering help navigating traditional and charter schools. It would also more sharply define the role of a public education ombudsman, charged with mediating disputes between families and schools.

Activists praised those measures Monday but said that in the age of mayoral control of the schools, officials need to do much more to ensure that parents have a voice in shaping policy decisions that have major implications for families.

Right now, city officials are talking about overhauling school boundaries and establishing a unified lottery for charter and traditional schools, said longtime activist Cathy Reilly — but no one has explained how or whether the public will have a chance to weigh in.

“We are not empowered,” Reilly said. “We are only empowered to comment afterwards.”

Tuesday’s Education Committee hearing will is scheduled for 9 a.m. in room 500 of the Wilson Building.

 
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