"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Keeping An Eye On The Prize of Quality Legislation

The Missouri legislature has hit the ground running, as it always does this time of year, and is moving forward rapidly on a number of proposed bills.  Yesterday Senate Bill 706, which attempts to provide framework for fixing the problem associated with the unaccredited school districts transferring students to the adjoining accredited districts, got its first public hearing. The cyber world was abuzz with issues about it and several groups provided input through the public hearing process.  It should have been a time to admire the legislative process, where elected officials perform their duty to address issues that cannot be addressed solely by private citizens, and private citizens can provide input to their elected officials on the specific work they are doing.  But in the world of politics, it seems, it is very difficult to separate ego from process.

The way the process is supposed to work is that citizens can approach their legislator with issues that need some sort of legislative action. Those citizens, who may be businesses, individuals, associations, unions or lobbying groups can supply suggested legislative language or, they can leave it up to the legislator to write the draft legislative language. Once the draft bill has been assigned to committee and received initial committee review, it is typically opened up to public comment through the hearing process.  Here, the same citizens who asked for consideration in the first place, can comment on whether the proposed language meets their needs.  It is also where others affected by the proposed legislation can provide insight as to; where they find the language confusing or, how it might affect them and, show possible unintended consequences of the bill.

This is a critical step in the passage of quality legislation. The language must be clear and consistent. It should consider how the rules laid out in the bill will be applied in the future.  And consideration must be given to unintended consequences. When Missouri statute 167.131 of the Outstanding Schools Act was written in 1993,  allowing students in unaccredited districts to transfer to adjoining accredited districts, all the ramifications of that bill were not fully considered, and we are left, two decades later, to try to figure out exactly how to accomplish those transfers.  We cannot say, "Well, the great Senator X Intended for those kids to go to schools with already open slots"  because the intent of the authors is not noted nor binding several years later. The only thing we can rely on is the specific language of SB380.

Too often ego gets thrown into this step of the process. Some legislators don't like others critiquing their work and take such comments as personal attacks.  Lobbyists take it personally when a legislator says they cannot accommodate their request because it would not apply the rules uniformly. The worst is when lobbyists and legislators have so strong a personal relationship that they cannot see that, what they have both agreed to in discussion, is not actually included in the language.  Because they both understand what they were trying to say, it is hard for them to see what is actually on the page. The focus is rapidly thrown off the process of perfecting the bill (a term the legislature uses) and Jefferson City devolves into a sea of ad hominim attacks and useless argument whose only goal is to preserve ego.

We need to keep the focus on the process and the final goal: clear honest legislation. This should apply to everyone in the process, whether patriot or office holder, average citizen or paid lobbyist.

One more thought - If we are going to require high quality teachers in our schools, should we not require high quality legislators in our congress? If we are going to use the objective measurement of student test scores to define a quality teacher, couldn't we use objective measure of quality legislation as a yard stick for our legislators?

1 comment:

  1. The legislative process, particularly in Missouri, is so incestuous, new ideas and new players are not welcomed, even though armed with facts. The "good ol' boy" network also includes the "good ol' girls" and true patriots need to look past personalities, past associations and focus on the issue.

    To support faulty legislation won't help us out of this educational nightmare and reform based on Federal mandates.


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