A Tool for Action: My Experience at a City Council Hearing

Posted by bhae09 on April 1, 2010

Last Thursday I visited the Council of the District of Columbia chamber, blocks from the White House, to observe five hours of public charter school performance oversight hearings.  Exciting, right?

We heard testimony from an assortment of players in local charter schools.  Only two of 12 councilpersons attended: Vincent C. Gray (council chair) and Marion Barry (D.C.’s former-mayor-turned-councilman).  On the other side of the room, several dozen people filled chairs to testify, listen, provide moral support, and represent both sides of the public school/public charter school equation.

I found out that five hours is a looooong time, but hearings can go much, much longer – after all, there’s a lot to be aired.  This one was technical but not stale.  It was often impassioned. It was a chance to have an honest discussion of the issues between experts, the personally invested, and policymakers.  Each person coming to the microphone was held intensely responsible for their every word, and the goal was actual improvement of as many students’ education as possible.

The most poignant testimony came from the personally invested: the parents and teachers with passion in their stories.  The reasoned arguments of educational experts, the researched contributions of renowned local lawyers, and the statistics – these carry their proper weight, but in their wake, a personal story can move a stalemated bureaucratic proceeding to action.  Conversely, a personal outcry in testimony brings incompatible council motions to a grinding halt.

At this particular hearing, the chairman listened carefully to testimonies, letting each stand for what it was.  He thanked parents and teachers for their personal stories.  He sharply questioned everyone who provided data or represented a group (schools, the ACLU, law firms, oversight and advocacy groups) beyond themselves.  He probed the diligence, rigor, and bias of each.  Parents described positive and negative experiences.  Principals answered a litany of questions about best practices.  Advocacy groups presented change-over-time data with bright moving diagrams.

The hearing needed frankness, and the chairman needed concrete numbers with citation.  He asked about market saturation and the big picture.  The council and the audience seemed to value testimonies of those who didn’t know how to turn on the microphone just as much as those for whom it was muscle memory.

The conversation was an attempt to approach the truth.   At the end of the day, the voices heard were those who came.

Why didn’t every school send a representative?  Why didn’t ten parents speak?  Ten taxpayers?  Ten affected D.C. public school officials?  The 2010-2011 fate of hundreds of thousands of players were decided partially because of which impassioned stories were told by t-shirted parents and which experts came to the table in suits.

For public policy on any issue, it boils down to who cares enough: who cares enough to become knowledgeable, but really, who cares enough to come.  As I was told recently, there’s always a constituency for the status quo.


One Response to “A Tool for Action: My Experience at a City Council Hearing”

  1. Gewinnen said

    i’m so thrilled that i found this site. that comment was so helpful. thanks again i bookmarked this article.
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