Education bills get mixed reviews from D.C. schools officials

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A long line of education advocates and high-achieving students testified Thursday in favor of legislation that requires D.C. high school students to take college entrance exams and apply to at least one college.

Yet the city’s charter school board feels the measure amounts to “overreaching” and the traditional public schools system could not offer unqualified support for the bill.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown said his college preparation bill is a “bold step forward” in opening new doors for city students. The bill, which would be phased in over time, also emphasizes trade skills, military or other post-secondary programs to make sure high school students can compete in the workplace and earn a livable wage.

“We’re simply being dishonest if we pretend a high school diploma is enough for our students,” Mr. Brown said, openly disagreeing with public schools representatives who do not think SAT and college applications should be mandatory.

But the D.C. Public School Charter Board said mandatory SAT testing could impose on charter schools’ autonomy and “leads to a creeping re-regulation of charter school that steadily erodes the very basis for their success.”

Mr. Brown told the board’s director, Scott Pearson, that he understands that position. He supports charter schools, he added, but “all they want is our money and they don’t want us to tell them what to do.”

A top official from the D.C. Public Schools said the system is working on programs that dovetail with the chairman’s goals, but it could not offer his bill a definitive stamp of approval.

“Is that a yes or a no?” Mr. Brown asked chief academic officer Carey Wright.

“We’ll support the bill,” Ms. Wright said. “We’d like to just work with you to strengthen it a little bit.”

Pressed on the issue, Ms. Wright could not offer specifics on how DCPS would work with the chairman’s office. She said she personally opposes a mandatory SAT but noted the test could be offered during the school day to compel more participation.

“I don’t think we need additional graduation requirements, but I do think we need to address the issues you brought forward in your bill, which is what we’re trying to do,” she said.

Council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, said he wished D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson had attended the hearing.

“That’s precisely why the chancellor should be here,” he said. “Dr. Wright does make those educational policy decisions, she recommends them.”

Ann Abbott, policy analyst for the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates, said she supports the spirit of the bill but warned of a “check the box” mentality that could take hold among students who have no choice but to apply to college.

“Just applying for college isn’t necessarily enough,” she said. “You actually do have to put a lot of thought into what career you want to go into … I think this legislation could really hurt kids that just say, ‘Oh, well we applied, that’s enough,’ and that’s our fear and we don’t want that.”

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