Henderson not convinced that D.C. education plan will help schools

June 4, 2013

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said she is not convinced that a wide-ranging package of education legislation introduced Tuesday will improve educational outcomes for the city’s children.

“I need more information, because on the face of it, I just don’t believe that these seven proposals are going to move us to where we need to go,” Henderson said of council member David A. Catania’s education proposals.

Catania (I-At Large) described his legislative package as an effort to spur stronger academic achievement, particularly among the city’s poorest children. Henderson said pieces of the legislation are intriguing and could be helpful, such as a proposal to send more money to low-performing high schools.

But she raised questions about other, more dramatic ­changes, including one that would give principals far greater autonomy over school budgets and another that would mandate consequences, including closure, for underperforming traditional public schools.

Henderson said the urban school systems that she considers models for improvement, such as Boston’s, have succeeded in part because they’ve chosen an approach and stuck with it.


Kaya Henderson (The Washington Post)

“We have to ask ourselves, what is the role of the legislature?” Henderson said.

If the council adopts major policy changes every few years, as politicians come and go, she said, “then the school district is slapped around right, left and center, pursuing these things that various people have opinions about.”

Henderson said that she still has much to learn about the details of the bills and that she looks forward to further conversation with lawmakers about the proposals.

The bills garnered support from multiple council members Tuesday. Measures addressing school funding, social promotion, a unified enrollment lottery and parent engagement each attracted nine or 10 co-sponsors.

Council members David Grosso (I-At Large), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) co-sponsored all seven bills.

“I don’t agree with everything in here, that’s not the way it should be,” Barry said. “But during these hearings we’re going to have a great time debating this as a community.”

Some parents frustrated by the school system’s budgeting process said Tuesday that they welcome the push to give principals more power over school-level spending. Others said the effort to increase per-pupil allocations for poor children would level the playing field for students across the city.

But proponents of neighborhood schools raised concerns that the bills could erode the traditional school system by mandating that chronically underperforming schools be closed, turned over to an outside organization or turned into charter-like “innovation schools.”

Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said he was studying the legislation. Robert Cane, head of the pro-charter lobbyist group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, said he too was still in the midst of analysis.

“It’s a lot of paper to go through,” Cane said.

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