Gray officials object to major elements of Catania’s education plan

Gray administration officials said Tuesday that while they broadly agree with some provisions in D.C. Council member David Catania’s education proposals that aim to improve student achievement across the city, they object to major elements of the legislation.

Some of the most intense pushback, aired at the first of five public hearings on the proposals, came in response to Catania’s plan to create a local accountability system that could lead to traditional schools closing or transforming into charter-like “innovation schools” after failing to meet performance targets.

“The threat of closure can be an inspiration for innovation,” Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the council’s education committee, said at the hearing, arguing that too many schools are allowed to struggle for years without meaningful consequences.

“People feel the heat,” Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson replied. “Nobody is sitting around acting like we don’t have to move student achievement urgently.”

Henderson called innovation schools a “watered-down version” of charter schools that would not do enough to allow her to turn around struggling schools. Henderson, with the support of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), is seeking the power to approve her own charters.

“I sit here at this table and people tell me that charters are eating my lunch,” Henderson said, referring to charter schools’ higher graduation rates and standardized-test results. If total freedom from union contracts and municipal regulations is helping charters succeed, she said, “why can’t I have the authority to do that too?”

Henderson also took issue with Catania’s proposals to stop social promotion of students and give principals more power over their own budgets, arguing that Catania’s goals are noble but his ideas — and his efforts to legislate a fix — are misguided.

Responding to the charge that his legislation oversteps the council’s proper role in shaping schools, Catania took a shot at Gray, who said last month in his first speech devoted to education that the District should “stay the course” on education policy.

“I reject the notion that parents should be patient while their government stays the course,” Catania said. “The status quo is not producing the results that we demand and the results that we need.”

Tuesday’s hearing featured Gray officials, all of whom gave the proposals mixed reviews: Henderson; Abigail Smith, deputy mayor for education; Emily Durso, interim state superintendent of education; Brian Hanlon, director of the Department of General Services; and John H. “Skip” McCoy, chairman of the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

They supported some of Catania’s efforts, including his push to make it easier for the charter school board to close underperforming schools and a provision to give low-income high school students free transportation.

Other measures generated support in principle but quibbles with particulars.

The council and the executive branch agree, for example, that the city needs a unified enrollment lottery for charters and traditional schools. Gray officials have argued that legislation is not necessary because they are already working to establish that lottery, and Catania said he would be willing to withdraw his bill if he can be convinced that it isn’t necessary to spur change.

Gray administration officials also said they supported Catania’s effort to design a transparent process for transferring surplus buildings from the traditional school system to charters. But individual provisions of the bill are unworkable, they said, including one requiring the city to pay to maintain empty buildings for three years if they draw no suitable bids from charters.

Catania invited Gray officials to draft alternative language.

There seemed to be little such middle ground on a proposal to strengthen the Office of the State Superintendent of Education by allowing the state superintendent to be fired only for cause and only with the approval of the elected State Board of Education.

Gray officials argued that the measure infringes on mayoral control of the schools, while Catania said the state superintendent needs to be independent to make politically unpopular decisions on everything from closing schools to investigating cheating.

The local accountability system faced some of the broadest opposition. Already the District must adhere to a different set of standards under its waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, Durso said, arguing that a new local system would create a duplicative or potentially conflicting set of expectations for schools.

There also was debate about the impact a new local accountability system could have on millions of dollars in federal Title I funds. Durso said that those funds — meant to improve achievement among low-income students — cannot be used to meet local mandates and that the proposed legislation could imperil the funding.

Alexander Dreier, one of several lawyers Catania hired to draft the legislation, disagreed. He said he wasn’t aware of any provision of Title I law that would interfere with a local accountability system.

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