ONE OF THE FIRST things D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) did after taking over the newly constituted education committee was host a dinner aimed at establishing a new tone of collaboration for those involved in D.C. public education. The dinner was held on a night when D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson had long been scheduled to be out of town. That was an early tip-off to Mr. Catania’s notions about cooperation.
It has become increasingly clear since that March dinner that Mr. Catania wants an oversized role in education that substitutes his judgments for those from people who are charged with leadership of the schools. That’s worrisome; one reason the District’s public schools fell into such disrepair was interference from politicians who felt they knew better.
We applauded the decision by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) in January to establish a stand-alone committee to focus on education; we saw Mr. Catania as capable. So it was alarming to see the education committee this month under Mr. Catania’s direction make decisions on the mayor’s recommended 2014 budget that cross the line between proper legislative oversight and potentially harmful interference. Among the questionable recommendations: curtailing the ability of officials to move forward on school boundary revisions, micromanaging individual school budgets and reordering capital funds.
Particularly troubling was the decision to cut money for the modernization of Malcolm X Elementary School, a move that threatens a proposed and innovative partnership between the school system and one of the city’s top performing charters. Asked the rationale for this cut, Mr. Catania told us it was at the behest of Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), and we would have to get the explanation from him. Not exactly an answer that gives one confidence in how education policy is made.
Some of the decisions, as Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) pointed out in a letter to Mr. Mendelson, seemed “puzzling” and “contradictory.” The council, for example, has made a priority of combating truancy but the committee voted to cut money that would have gone to specialists and improvements in data collection. The administration has been criticized for a lack of coordination between charter and traditional schools but the budget of Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, generally seen as having the ability to cross the divide between the two sectors, was targeted for deep reductions. Mr. Catania showed no effort to conceal a disdain for Ms. Smith.
Mr. Catania rejected any notion that the actions, which he stressed were taken by majority vote of his committee, amount to micromanaging or meddling or that politics (he’s been mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor next year) are a factor. “The council is not a rubber stamp, ” he lectured us about the checks and balances of government.
The full council takes its first vote on the budget Wednesday. It should reconsider the committee’s recommendations and step back from the kind of micromanagement that was so destructive in the past.
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