The D.C.Council, through David Catania's leadership, began this week to find its education reform voice. It sent an unequivocal message to Mayor Vincent Gray, DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and others about the standard it expects. Further, it redirected taxpayers' money to programs residents have said matter to them and that will improve outcomes for the city's children.
In the past, council members' fear of being labeled micromanagers morphed them into timid bystanders. On Tuesday, they forcefully jumped into the game, passing a nonbinding resolution that expressed their dissatisfaction with the Gray administration's summer school policy and funding decisions.
While the administration identified 10,000 DCPS students as "struggling," Henderson created an "invitation only" system that would have denied the majority of those children the chance to participate in the five-week program. That enraged Catania and his colleagues. It also raised questions about Gray's commitment to the system's lowest performers.
The resolution lacked the force of law. Still, it was an effective mechanism for asserting the council's position. The legislation urged Gray to open summer school to all children who want to attend. Underscoring their intent, lawmakers provided, through the fiscal 2013 supplemental budget, an additional $4 million for the remedial program.
Then, on Thursday, the Committee on Education and Libraries, headed by Catania, unanimously recommended changes to sections of Gray's 2014 budget that would have harmed children and eroded progress at several schools.
"I think this is an innovative and incredibly thoughtful response," at-large Councilman David Grosso said about Catania's recommendations. Peter MacPherson, a Ward 6 advocate and DCPS parent who has engaged in an intense battle to bring full-time librarians to all traditional schools, said the changes would go a "long way to stabilizing the situation."
Without substantially growing the overall education budget, Catania's committee recommended allocating $4.5 million to hold spending reductions to 5 percent at the school level. It also restored full-time librarians to schools slated to lose them because Henderson had, without notice, changed the definition of small schools from those with fewer than 300 students to those with fewer than 400 students.
The committee also recommended funds to implement the STEM science and technology program at Ward 7's H.D. Woodson High School. The city spent tens of millions of dollars renovating the facility but never invested in the vital academic program at the school.
Equally important, money was added to the DC State Board of Education's budget to fund an office of ombudsman. If effectively structured and competently staffed, that office could help parents and advocates navigate the system, give them a mechanism for venting frustrations and concerns, and encourage their active participation in education reform.
Despite those recommendations, the city is a long way from producing a high-quality public education system. Still, Catania and his committee members deserve accolades. After five years, it appears the council is now focused on a major public policy it implemented through an amendment to the District's Home Rule Charter.
Whew! Let's not complain that it took so long.
Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.