David Catania, chair of the DC Council's education committee wants $100,000 for every low-income high school graduate to attend college. “Because of the failure of our public education system for years we’ve left entire pockets of the city behind. We have to be able to talk openly about it.” (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

Students, teachers and school administrators showered praise Wednesday on a D.C. lawmaker’s plan to give high school graduates as much as $100,000 each in taxpayer money for college as a powerful incentive to keep at-risk kids in class.

Testimony from a nonprofit that awards college scholarships in Washington state also suggested that the plan by D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) could increase graduation rates in public schools and give more D.C. families their first college graduate.

But amid a show of public support for Catania’s proposed legislation, he and Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D) administration sparred over the unknown cost of the subsidies and whether they would eat into city funding to operate and continue improving D.C. classrooms.

“Respectfully, I think we can do both,” Catania said, pointing to projected budget surpluses in the city for the next several years.

Catania's bill would give students from households that make up to the twice the federal poverty line, as well as any child in foster care, up to $20,000 annually, and a maximum of $100,000 over five years for post-secondary school.

The grants would phase out on a sliding scale. Students in households that earn up to $250,000 a year would be eligible for the smallest grants of $5,000 per year, and a total of $25,000, should they take five years to complete college.

The money would be available to D.C. public school and charter school graduates to defray college tuition and fees once other options for grants and scholarships have been exhausted. To be eligible, students would have to have attended a D.C. public or charter school from sixth through 12th grades; smaller grants would be available for those who only attend high school in the District.

Nine council members signed onto Catania’s plan when he introduced it last month.

At a public hearing Wednesday, however, Jesus Aguirre, Gray’s acting state superintendent of education, offered only tacit support for the idea.

“Certainly, we support anything that is going to help kids get into college and have access to college,” Aguirre said. “My concern is looking at how we are going to fund this and fund everything else that we’re trying to do.”

The city’s chief financial officer has yet to estimate the cost of the legislation, but Catania estimated that the program could cost a maximum, “worst-case-scenario ... of $50 million” a year.

He said he had no intention of seeking to bankrupt the city, and expected that costs would gradually grow over several years, allowing the city to easily cover the increasing expenditure if it was a priority. And Catania left no doubt he thought it should be a priority — and perhaps the only way to help level the city’s intense income inequality.

“The only way I see to make sure that people who are born here can stay here is through education. We’re not permitted to play Robin Hood and redistribute what we have, so the only anecdote to this is education ... these micro-investments, one student at a time,” Catania said.

“Because of the failure of our public education system, for years we’ve left entire pockets of the city behind. We have to be able to talk openly about it. We can’t pretend that it isn’t happening.”

About 50 students, teachers and guidance counselors filled the council chambers Wednesday, with nearly all speaking in favor of the bill.

Among those who expressed doubt, most wanted the requirements for eligibility expanded to all District students, or at least to low-income students who may be on scholarships at private schools. Others wanted the bill to clarify whether room and board and tuition for two-year and technical programs could also qualify.

Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said the measure not only would give a leg up to poor students, but also could be a “powerful antidote” to keep more affluent families – who often move to the suburbs or opt for private schools by the time their kids reach junior high – to stay in the city’s public schools.

Emma Brown contributed to this report.