A Journey to the State Capitol

Hello? Is anyone home?

At first, I thought that it would be easy to schedule a meeting with my state legislative representative. After all, I am one of their constituents and don’t they have an obligation to listen to voting members of their district? Perhaps this is an incorrect assumption, but I’m guessing my neighbors, their constituents, are not knocking down their doors to discuss State legislation. But I could be wrong.

I live in District 37 represented by Senator Rebecca Saldana and Representatives Eric Pettigrew and Sharon Tomiko Santos. After 8 email meeting request and a voicemail over the course of a month, I heard nothing. Maybe none of them wanted to discuss House Bill 1536. Maybe none of them wanted to talk about creating an economically diverse neighborhood by preserving affordable housing stock in existing buildings. Maybe none of them wanted to talk about how to incentivize private apartment owners to set-aside 25% of their building for low-income tenants (at 50% and 60% of Area Median Income). I will never know.

But all was not lost. Although I was not able to get an in person meeting, I did see Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos at the Education Committee Hearing in House Hearing Room A in the John L. O’Brien Building in Olympia, WA. As chair of the Education Committee, Representative Santos was presiding over a hearing on House Bill 1705.

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Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos presides over the Education Committee Hearing in House Hearing Room A in the John L. O’Brien Building.

Representative Kirby, the house bill’s prime sponsor made a few remarks to start the discussion. In a half-joking manner he said that the bill would fix public education once and for all and that the bill was more important because it had a higher number (than another bill on the same agenda). He mentioned, anecdotally, that he spent time with kids and parents in charter schools last year and that the parents were happy with charter school. He said that over the last couple of decades there have been more laws put into place in an effort to make schools better, but he alluded to the fact that this may have the opposite outcome. Charter schools are exempt from, according to him, “almost everything”. The bill he sponsored would allow public schools to be flexible by opting into a program – thus the bill’s title, to authorize flexibility schools and flexibility zones.

Before the bill hearing, there was a working session to first understand, what is a flexibility school?

The Education Committed was presented information about non-traditional education programs in Washington Public School System. These programs include STEM Lighthouse Schools, dual credit programs (Advance Placement, Running Start, etc.), the Highly Capable Program at the University of Washington, among others. The committee members were all given time to question the presenter and to ask for follow up information. Just behind me in the audience, there was a young, African-American teenager that was raising his hand to speak. The Committee Chair called him to the stand to speak.

Eldridge is a senior at Big Picture High School, an Alternative School, in Burien. He spoke very eloquently about the close teacher/advisor relationship with each student, the ability to learn through exploring your own interests, career exploration through outside internship, and a competency-based evaluation system rather than grades/credits. Two other students in the audience joined Eldridge. The Committee was then questioning all three students about their experience at Big Picture High School. The questions including:

  • How does a competency based evaluation program work?
  • How do you get to school?
  • Who determines competency?
  • Why did you choose to go to an alternative school rather than a traditional school?
  • What role did your parents play in making that choice?

The Committee was enamored with these students.   At one point, Committee Chair Santos had to do a time check move on with the agenda.

I’m fairly certain that those students did not take the day off of school to travel from Burien to Olympia to share their story in front of the House Education Committee on their own. At the committee hearing, I witness the power of a strong testimonial. The student’s testimonials eclipsed, by far, the Power Point presentation with bullet points and data. Testimonials have a place in our lawmaking process, but should they become more important than results and data? In a public forum, which is our legislative process, it is much more compelling to tell a story, than to present a data table. Welcome to the legislative process.

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