Photo from office of David Catania.

Does the DC Council need an education committee? That question has come up for debate as the committee’s chair, former mayoral candidate David Catania, prepares to step off the council.

The famously aggressive, apparently indefatigable Catania made the education committee a force to be reckoned with during the two years he was at its helm. Some applauded his efforts to light a fire under DC’s education officials, while others complained he was micromanaging the schools, and even that he was a bully.

Now some have suggested that DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson is thinking of abolishing the committee. Education activists are urging him to keep it and appoint a new chair, arguing that education issues will languish without it. Mendelson has said he doesn’t know what he’s going to do and is talking about the issue with other councilmembers.

The council had an education committee until 2006, when Vincent Gray, then the incoming council chair, abolished it. Gray argued that having education matters come before the full council would allow all members to participate. But it also gave Gray himself more influence over a hot political issue that could serve as a springboard to the mayor’s office.

Shortly after voters elected Mendelson council chair in late 2012, he decided to revive the education committee and make Catania its chair. At the time, Mendelson said those moves would be “very good in intensifying our work in public education.”

So why is Mendelson now thinking about doing away with the committee? Unlike Gray, he doesn’t seem to have mayoral ambitions, and he hasn’t demonstrated a keen interest in education, so it’s unlikely that he wants to claim the limelight for himself. Perhaps he feels the committee’s work actually became too intense.

Catania as committee chair

Catania got a lot done: among other things, he visited 150 schools, helped procure funds for school renovations, proposed a tuition-assistance program for graduates of DC high schools, revived the moribund office of school ombudsman, and introduced a sweeping package of seven bills that he drafted with the help of a law firm.

Not all of those bills passed, but Catania had notable achievements with legislation that increased funding for at-risk students and overhauled the special education system.

On the other hand, some of his proposals duplicated initiatives that the Gray administration was already working on, and others seemed to be at cross purposes with them.

And in his rush to shake things up with his bills, it sometimes appeared that Catania hadn’t thought through their implications. For example, his proposed DC Promise college scholarship program threatened to jeopardize an existing federal scholarship program for DC students.

Aside from the sheer volume of things Catania did, his manner was a problem. While his supporters praised his aggressive style, it didn’t always make for smooth relations with the many other cooks in DC’s education kitchen.

He and DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson began their relationship cordially enough, but it soon became tense. When he questioned her at committee hearings, he sometimes sounded like a litigator cross-examining a hostile witness.

The case for keeping the education committee

Does that mean there shouldn’t be an education committee? It’s arguable that DC has enough entities overseeing its education system. In addition to DCPS and the Public Charter School Board, there’s the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, and the State Board of Education. So maybe we don’t need yet another governing body.

But when the DC Council appropriates funds, it clearly needs to ensure that government agencies spend them responsibly. Education spending is a significant part of the DC budget, so it makes sense that a separate committee should exist to monitor it.

And, with one exception, all of DC’s education-related government bodies have members or leaders who the mayor appoints or nominates. The exception is the elected State Board of Education, but its role is only advisory. So the council’s education committee is the one DC entity that can serve both as an independent watchdog and a meaningful conduit for public frustration with the state of the District’s schools.

Of course, before the schools went under mayoral control in 2007, the local school board served those functions—and the schools failed to improve. Some argue that the whole point of mayoral control was to streamline decision making and centralize accountability. If you have two sources of control, they say, it’s not clear who to blame or credit.

That argument may have force in other cities, but DC is an anomaly. Here, there’s no state government to oversee the mayor’s management of the schools, and a mayoral election once every four years may not be enough to ensure accountability.

Plus, findings in a recent study showed that many DC residents feel mayoral control has reduced the public’s voice in education. True, the old school board may have given the public too much of a voice, politicizing questions that should have been left to policymakers and experts and blocking needed reforms. But in the long run, reforms are more likely to work if they have public support and don’t just come from the top down.

Some have warned that the council’s education committee has been on track to replicate the worst aspects of the old school board. But that doesn’t have to be the case. A new, less confrontational but still energetic committee chair could change the dynamic and forge a productive partnership with mayor-elect Muriel Bowser’s administration, while at the same time providing a check on unfettered mayoral control.

It looks as though the likely replacement for Catania, should the committee remain in existence, will be Councilmember David Grosso. He’s demonstrated an interest in education and a sense of urgency about reform, but he doesn’t seem to have Catania’s acidic edge. He might be just what DC’s complicated and increasingly polarized education landscape needs right now.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.