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Barras: David Catania for education chairman


D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson likely will decide committee assignments this week. He has lamented the difficulty of his task. A few members are reportedly being investigated by local or federal law enforcement.

Should Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham -- the focus of a probe by the city's ethics board -- be allowed to keep his committee? How about Councilwoman Yvette Alexander? According to published reports, the feds are investigating whether her staff demanded cash on the Ward 7 legislator's behalf in exchange for her vote for the 2009 lottery contract. Should they be sidelined until they have been cleared of any wrongdoing?

There's no doubt about David Catania, however. Assigning him to a newly created Committee on Education would be a sure thing. His oversight leadership of what many consider the most important council committee would send a dual message: The legislature is serious about education reform and it wants to regain the public's respect.

Catania's past stewardship of the Committee on Health over the last decade is prologue. Before he became chairman, the city's health department and services, particularly those to poor and working class families and their children, were absolutely horrible. Today, as a result of his unwavering dedication, uncompromising standard of excellence and unparallel collaboration with the executive, the District's health care delivery system is the envy of many states.

If citizens aren't interested in tracking that history, they can review his performance at the council's recent hearings on D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson's half-baked closure proposal. Catania was one of the few legislators who had read her briefing book. He raised cogent questions about personnel and financial decisions being made at the school level.

Why, for example, the at-large legislator wanted to know, were there more administrators at some schools than instructors? What was the priority: keeping administrators with pay checks or teaching children?

An intelligent and thorough examination of school finances and programs has been absent from education oversight for the last two years. Some people were interested in using the issue as a platform for their political ambitions. Others were satisfied with the fact that Henderson is not Michelle Rhee.

Political potency or the arrival of a less caustic personality isn't an appropriate barometer to measure whether the city's public education system is serving District residents. There are serious challenges that demand consistent and intense attention.

Residents deserve to know, for example, why the chancellor and charter schools repeatedly claim insufficient funds when the annual public education budget is more than $1 billion. What bang are those bucks buying when students at many schools -- charters and traditional -- have not achieved advance or proficient levels on standardized tests? What is the future direction of education reform and what role should be played by the University of the District of Columbia -- not just its community college?

Without micromanaging any institution or reducing the quality of choice, Catania is the legislator best suited as education committee chairman to secure answers to those and other critical questions.

Jonetta Rose Barras's column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.