June 8, 2013

WITH MANY District students not proficient in math or reading, it is hard to fault D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) for wanting to focus attention on the need for improvement in public education . Some of the ideas that fuel his wide-ranging legislative effort may have merit. But the imperious way he has tried to seize control of the education agenda — setting himself up as an opponent of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) — is cause for concern.

Mr. Catania last week unveiled legislation, which he characterized as a “blueprint for the future of public education,” that would reshape education policy. The seven bills, affecting both the city’s traditional and charter public schools, target school funding, accountability, assessments and other areas. Mr. Catania, entering his sixth month as head of the council’s newly constituted education committee, said he hoped to spur better education outcomes, particularly among poor students. “Everything we’re doing here, I might have it completely wrong. But at least I’m trying,” said Mr. Catania, who is critical of what he sees as stagnation of the school reform launched in 2007 with mayoral takeover of the public school system.

The proposals, crafted with the assistance of a law firm hired with private donations, will require careful scrutiny and debate. There are interesting ideas (such as how to better target money toward students who need the most help) and some that seem to duplicate policies already in the works (such as the move to a common school lottery). Others renew the worry that the council is seeking to reconstitute itself as the old school board in dictating policy that undermines the authority of the mayor and ties the hands of school officials.

The uncharacteristically tart reaction of D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson — “I just don’t believe that these seven proposals are going to move us to where we need to go” and “we have to ask ourselves, what is the role of the legislature?” — underscore that concern, as does the way in which the legislation evolved. Mr. Catania has called the development of the bills a collaborative process in which stakeholders were consulted. That doesn’t square with what some participants described as a sham with him calling all the shots. The Post’s Emma Brown, who sat in on sessions, reported that attendees were not fully briefed but instead were asked to respond to a series of questions to gauge support for disparate parts of the plan. It is telling that Mr. Catania did not meet one on one with the mayor, and his continued snubbing of Abigail Smith, Mr. Gray’s highly qualified deputy for education, is childish.

Mr. Catania, who hasn’t ruled out a run for mayor, allowed to us that there are things he might have done differently. He recently extended an olive branch to the administration by offering to make the mayor’s proposal to give chartering authority to Ms. Henderson part of the hearings he plans on his legislation. He promised there would be full debate with nothing set in stone. That’s good to know, given that council members were clamoring to sign on as co-sponsors of the bills without having bothered to read them. It’s important that the council tread carefully. Lengthy, political distractions are not what the system and its children need.