January 16, 2012

IN RECENT MONTHS, members of the D.C. Council have hatched legislation that would variously reassign the system’s highly effective teachers, limit class size and lengthen the school day. Now comes a push to require all students to apply to college or other post-secondary institutions in order to receive a high school diploma. The proposals are not without merit, but the way they were developed — without consultation with those who manage the schools or any regard to the impact — is a troubling sign of a council that seems more interested in sound bites than in providing thoughtful oversight.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), who, when not dealing with questions about his and the council’s ethics, kicked off the year by introducing a bill that would require all public and public charter high school students to take a standardized college admission test and then apply to at least one post-secondary institution. They would have to do this even if they do not plan to continue their education. Eleven states require students to take some form of standardized college-application testing, but the District apparently would be the first jurisdiction to make a high school diploma contingent on applying.

There’s a lot to be said for setting high expectations, but Mr. Brown’s proposal has shortcomings. As Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, wrote in the Huffington Post, “The specifics of his new bill . . . need some work.”

Does the system have in place the supports needed for successful outcomes, or would it be setting up students for failure? Is the city prepared to pick up the costs of applications for students who can’t afford the fees? What about the exam fees? Will there be counselors to provide effective advice on what college to pick or how to write an essay? And, most important, is it really a good idea to deny a diploma to someone who met all the requirements of a high school education save for filling out a college application?

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson learned about the bill from the newspaper. According to a spokesman for the administration,the state schools superintendent and deputy mayor for education weren’t consulted either. Mr. Brown told us that the legislation is in its early stages and he is committed to working with Ms. Henderson and other members of the mayor’s administration to shape a viable plan. “I’m not interested in micromanaging anyone,” he said.

In that spirit, it would be better for the council not to ricochet from issue to issue, coming up with half-baked legislation that takes up time that Ms. Henderson could better spend on other issues. The D.C. Council does have an important role in education. The council’s previous chairman, Mayor Vincent C. Gray, proved that with his careful study and reform of early childhood education. Mr. Brown’s interest in improving the schools seems genuine, and he is right to want to set expectations high. Perhaps it is time for him to reestablish an education committee that could give these issues the thoughtful attention they deserve.