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No Need for Education Research Advisory Group to Meet in Public? D.C. Open Government Coalition Disagrees With Council Emergency Proposal

Fritz Mulhauser | December 6, 2021 | Last modified: December 14, 2021

UPDATE 12/13/21, 6:00 p.m.: At the December 7 Council legislative meeting, the Council chairman withdrew his proposal to make the education research partnership advisory committee not a public body. A substitute dealt with another topic—authorizing the research partner, Urban Institute, to provide staff support to the advisory committee.

The original proposal had drawn concerns (as outlined in the blog below) expressed in community messages to members and by members at the pre-session legislative breakfast. The concern was that the advisory committee might, as a non-public body, decide to meet privately, an approach that would harm a key goal of the new research effort, to develop trustworthy facts.

Council members Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who chairs the committee with oversight of the Open Meetings Act, and Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) asked if this change (withdrawing an amendment stating the committee is not a pubic body) means the chairman expects advisory committee meetings to be open. Listeners may have thought his “yes” answer applied going forward.

The Coalition has been disappointed to learn that the chairman has not changed his view that the committee is not a public body and that it may therefore choose how open to be. An email by the chairman, sent the following day and obtained by the Coalition, makes clear his interpretation of the committee’s authorizing law:

The Council did not intend that the Advisory Committee be subject to the OMA but did want to say that some of the meetings should be open.

The Office of Open Government is reviewing that interpretation. Attention also turns to the committee and its decisions that may determine the extent of public access. The advisory group membership list has now been published and the first meeting will be re-set some time in January.

The brief exchange at the Council legislative meeting December 7 is shown on the session video, available here, beginning at 1:55:09.

Open meetings, along with open records and open data, are key commitments made by transparent governments. These are the tools to implement “the public policy of the District . . . that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government,” as D.C. law states.

But an emergency proposal on the agenda for Tuesday’s (7) D.C. Council legislative session would set back that commitment, according to the D.C. Open Government Coalition. (See bill and emergency declaration.)

The context: an ambitious law

The brief amendment says the advisory committee established to guide a new education research partnership is “not a public body.”

So what, you say?

That’s the definition in law of those boards, commissions and advisory groups covered by the D.C. Open Meetings Act.

So the amendment removes any obligation that the group

  • notify the public of meetings,
  • allow the public to attend,
  • close only segments on certain named topics, and
  • post meeting records afterwards.

Why is that an unreasonable expectation of a new education research advisory committee? The Coalition thinks it isn’t at all unreasonable.

The advisory body was established as part of a 2018 law. The main idea was a fresh approach, encouraging research on education here through a public-private partnership. This followed a blistering National Academy of Sciences study detailing the desperate state of data and knowledge on education here. Public concern built for years that education data were unhelpful and that published results too often gave an incorrect picture of key areas such as student achievement, school discipline and graduation rates.

That law set up a competition to choose an outside partner (awarded a year ago to the D.C.-based Urban Institute). That entity with others will shortly begin a new era of research to learn trustworthy and independently validated facts about D.C. education that respond to questions of community, educators and policy makers.

The advisory committee is to bring a public perspective

The law suggests the important role of the committee – to “provide intellectual guidance from diverse perspectives to the research projects of the Partnership [and] help formulate Partnership policy.” Their feedback (though not defined) both early and late on projects and products from the committee is required by the law.

Twelve of the 21 are public members bringing parent and teacher concerns and expertise in research, precisely to assure strong communication at all stages of the work so that it meets needs of D.C. educators, policymakers and stakeholders. The other nine are representatives from D.C. education agencies and the Council. Such collaborations are at work in many cities, and outside advisory panels are also familiar.

The 2018 partnership law establishes the committee entirely apart from the outside partners. It is to choose its own leadership and adopt by-laws, including extent of public access to meetings. Those by-laws would presumably be adopted in light of the open meetings law that has been applied to many other advisory bodies.

The open meetings law of course allows for closing portions to consider certain kinds of sensitive topics. 

There is no dispute we know of about the Urban Institute and partners: they clearly are not public bodies and have no obligations to provide access to records or meetings. Any public data they use are protected by a master research agreement they have negotiated. The Coalition sees no interests of the research partners that need protection through further tweaks to the law (one amendment addresses the partnership, the other the advisory committee).  

Let the advisory group and partners go to work – in the sunshine

The Coalition thus believes that the education partnership law should remain in place and that no emergency requires amendment.

The advisory body was established by law and will advise on work of great public interest that will use public data. Bodies combining government and public members to deliberate and give advice (for example, task forces on cross-sector collaboration and student funding formulas, and advisory groups at each school) have lived within the requirements of the D.C. Open Meetings Act (including review by the Office of Open Government that enforces the law District-wide) without difficulty, as far as the Coalition has heard. 

With the heightened state of concern about equity and effectiveness of schooling in D.C., surely the wisest policy is for the advisory body to be guided to meet in the sunshine, as it adopts its own rules and by-laws and begins its important work. To paraphrase the front-page mantra of a local newspaper, “solid research and trustworthy facts die in darkness.”

The Council should reject the emergency declaration this Tuesday. Experience will show whether some changes in the partnership prove needed as it gets started (advisory committee appointees have not been announced, no research work has begun). If so, future changes can be done through legislation in the regular way, with a hearing to gather public views. Tonight’s first meeting of the advisors we hope will be open.

If you agree with the Coalition, please contact Council members soon to let them know.