School House Blocked
Fingers tented under his chin, David Catania is listening. He’s heard about how fingerprinting aimed at detecting sex offenders scares well-meaning parents away from schools, and about classrooms where the Internet is too slow for their new computers. Now, at a meeting on education in Ward 7, he’s hearing a Woodson High School senior read the ways that Catania has offended him.
“I don’t appreciate you calling my school low-quality,” the student says. “I don’t think my school is low-quality.”
“A school where half the kids don’t graduate is a problem,” Catania shoots back.
Catania, under a banner bearing his name and trademark green campaign colors, takes another comment masquerading as a question. That’s OK with Catania—–facing a hostile mayor, the Washington Post editorial board, and a D.C. schools chancellor who’s indifferent to his ideas, he’ll make nice with whoever he can. He’s getting ready for the fall.
Before the D.C. Council took its summer recess, Catania’s colleagues gave him a shove out the door. By a vote of 7 to 6 at the end of June, they rejected the education committee chairman’s effort to weight funding for schools by the number of students that receive free and reduced priced lunches, a formula that would send more money to schools with poorer students.
Catania tried to trade a “yes” vote on an amended Large Retailer Accountability Act (aka the Walmart bill) for support for his plan. That swap would have given the living wage bill enough support to override a potential veto from Mayor Vince Gray.
The promise of trumping Gray, though, couldn’t save Catania’s funding formula. As Catania raged from the dais, councilmembers voted to wait for more research.
Catania says he still wanders around his house trying to figure out how some councilmembers voted against him. He’s especially angry at councilmembers who voted for the living wage bill but against his weighted formula, both of which ostensibly help the poor. “I still can’t figure out a way to put a sentence together that isn’t laced with words that aren’t inappropriate to print,” he says.
The weighted funding formula was a high-profile flop for Catania on the Council’s education committee, which emerged in January after seven years in which the Council’s Committee of the Whole handled schools. It seemed ripe for the aggressive style Catania honed while steering the Council’s health committee. “If you take somebody like David and put him in charge of something,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, “he’s not just going to sit there.”
So far, Catania has found it harder to carve out his own piece of the education agenda, despite proposing a package of seven reform bills that cover everything from social promotion to the creation of a charter lottery. That’s partly a result of education’s higher profile and partly because education was put under mayoral control in 2007. To make matters worse for an ambitious chairman looking for his own policy fiefdom, the mayor has his own proposed education reforms, including some that overlap with Catania’s.
Catania faces a more serious problem than resistance from Gray, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and his Council colleagues. That’s the evidence that, six years after then-Mayor Adrian Fenty took control of the schools, they actually are getting better. District students posted an average increase of 4 percent in math and reading proficiency scores this year. The schools aren’t fixed yet, but they’re also not waiting around for Catania to do the job.
Problems persist, as Catania is eager to point out. If there were enough charters for every student who wants to leave a traditional school, he says, DCPS’ population would drop in half. At Dunbar High School, where students started Monday in a new building, reading proficiency dropped by nearly double digits this year. Catania also points to deficiencies in occupational and parental involvement.
Smarting from his weighted formula defeat, Catania spent the recess in a Rocky montage of education wonkery. He read up on public schools around the world (the differences between Singapore and Mumbai, Catania tells LL, are “fascinating”). For the Palisades’ July 4 parade, the traditional summer home of politicians with a campaign to flog, Catania’s entourage wore T-shirts with the names of different D.C. schools on the back.
But Catania’s largest push over the recess has been his education meetings in all eight wards, usually held with fellow At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, a convenient foil for the notoriously abrasive Catania. When Grosso slips up and tells a crowd, incorrectly, that every District charter school outperforms every traditional public school, Catania steps in and mediates, looking reasonable in the process.
The listening tour wasn’t about pushing his reform bills, Catania says, but the banner with his name and the message “We Support Public Education in D.C.” suggests otherwise. The message is clear: If you have a problem with the schools, bring it to the Council.
Catania plans to start to introduce some of his bills for mark-up when the Council returns on Sept. 17, with more to follow later in the year. But not everyone is eager for the Council to take a more active role in education. When Catania unveiled his bills in June, Henderson told LL she didn’t understand how they would help. Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro, meanwhile, wondered about Catania’s motivations in keeping the bills, developed by law firm Hogan Lovells, secret for so long. (Catania says no legislation in Council history has had as much executive input.)
Catania is also up against the Post editorial board, one of D.C. school reform’s most devoted backers. The paper called his bills a “power grab” in July. “I’m responsible for the Lindbergh kidnapping and the King assassination if you read the Washington Post,” Catania says.
Catania could have one unlikely ally in U.S. Attorney Ron Machen. If Machen’s ongoing investigation into Gray’s 2010 campaign keeps the mayor from running for re-election, the lame-duck uncertainty for DCPS could create an opening for Catania. Whether the mayor runs for re-election or not, of course, he wants people to think he will—witness his balancing act at press conferences, where he says he’s proud of his first term, but won’t say whether he’ll seek another.
The list of opponents to Catania’s reforms could grow even bigger. There’s his three Council colleagues and mayoral hopefuls—–Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, Tommy Wells—–who likely won’t want to hamstring the office they’re seeking. There’s also the regular District resident who, seeing the system’s improvements under Henderson and predecessor Michelle Rhee, don’t want the Council further enmeshed in DCPS.
Catania, at least publicly, isn’t deterred by people who tell him to stay out of the schools. “I suspect there are people who wish I would just vacate the field,” Catania says. “And I’m sorry to disappoint them, but that’s just not going to happen."
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery