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Council Member Catania Outlines Plans For 'Reform 2.0' In DCPS

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Council member David Catania has a new plan for education in the District.
Jared Angle
Council member David Catania has a new plan for education in the District.

D.C. Council member David Catania has recently taken over as head of the Committee on Education for the city. He's been visiting public schools every week and is creating what he calls his "Reform 2.0" plan, which includes more money for low income students, those at risk of dropping out and vocational programs. Catania gave education reporter Kavitha Cardoza a preview of what to expect.

You've hired a law firm funded through private donations to look at how we can streamline functions. Aren't a lot of people already looking at things like this?

"Yes, we have a lot of foundations that are reviewing progress that we're making. The District government itself has essentially done nothing substantively about school reform since 2007, when we had what I call "Reform 1.0," which was a change in management where we went from a school board system to mayoral control at the point of the chancellor. It was a very important moment but it didn't result in reform cascading down into the classroom."

What have you tasked them with?

"I believe there ought to be an additional weight on the formula for children who are eligible for free and reduced lunch"

When you say weighted you mean they should get more money?

"That's right. Typically you have a formula of 1.0, one may be $9,000. So you might have 1.1, 1.25 etc. and you simply multiply it times whatever the basic formula is. The children who are coming to us from low income families face different challenges than those who are coming from the more affluent. And so what you have is a school from an affluent area able to spend its per pupil formula on instruction. And a struggling communities is spending it on social services. And it cheats the child twice. There's actually not enough for social services or instruction, so they don't do either well."

"But I'm also looking at a couple of other ideas I think are important. In our DCPS schools, 41 percent of our kids don't graduate. So one of the things I'm looking at is additional weight for our high school age students to help them prevent dropouts, which would be the first of its kind as far as our research indicates. And another weight that's directed at that population: I want a robust vocational education program in DCPS and our charters. Not everyone is going to be an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer."

How much is this going to cost?

"We're right now going through the DCPS budget with a fine tooth comb. I have to tell you it's a really opaque budget. The budget that the chancellor sends over is not the budget she operates under. And so we really have to cross walk from one set of books to another. And it looks like an offshore shell game. I'm not being pejorative towards her, but these budgets are not transparent."

"In addition to having greater transparency, I want to make sure we peg a percentage of the money that we actually spend on education devolve down to schools, and that's not what happens. We may send money out to the schools but we under cover of darkness claw a bunch of it back to central administration costs. And I think the Baltimore model where 80 cents on the dollar actually goes into the schools and you can prove it is a model that's well worth replicating"

I want to go back to cost, you must have some estimate?

"It really is a function how aggressive we are with the weighted formulas. I want to see what research tells me is the right number but I imagine this is going to be a proposition that over time will dramatically increase the budget of our schools, absolutely."

You've said you want to end social promotion in public schools where children move up to the next grade without being able to read and do math at grade level.

That's right; in the District we have an inexplicable municipal regulation that prohibits the schools system from holding back any child except in the grades 3, 5 and 8 unless the parent insists. The ninth grade is the first time you need credits in order to become a tenth grader. And last year more than a third of our ninth graders failed. I think the number is 922 of our ninth graders failed."

"By comparison, in 8th grade the last year one of the grades we could retain, we had retained 14 kids. So the system is geared towards passing kids along. These schools don't want kids in them who can't succeed because it hurts their test scores, but boy, we pay the fiddler come the ninth grade where we have this massive problem."

Critics of ending sending social promotion say research says these children have low self-esteem, it promotes all kinds of behavioral issues because you have kids who are developmentally a certain age with younger children. It also affects low income minority students disproportionately, as well as boys. And so why not just fund after school and summer school programs so these kids get extra support during the school year and can move along?

"I think this obsession with self-esteem, I don't believe when kids drop out in the ninth grade because we don't want to hurt their feelings and tell them they are not ready builds their self-esteem in the long run. And we try obviously our best to make sure they're on grade level. You know we have to be creative with how we look at this."

"I had a great conversation with one of our charter schools. They've created what they call '5th grade tenth graders.' So they actually let the child move on to the tenth grade but they tell the child you'll need five years to graduate. So it's not exactly holding them back with the next class, but there is a facing of the consequences."

One of your proposals early on was to prosecute parents if their children were truant. Some people have suggested that you advocate these politically popular measures prosecuting parents, ending social promotion, and talk the politician "tough talk" that voters love but educators are skeptical about, because you're thinking of running for mayor.

"People said the same thing when I was transforming healthcare in the city; that I'm doing it because I want another job. No, I like the jobs I'm doing. I'm not measuring for drapes in the mayor's office."


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