On April 4, 2002, something pretty amazing happened — people across Arkansas had a serious discussion about an important political issue. They agreed; they disagreed; they were nice to each other; they didn’t yell; and they might even have accomplished something.
The occasion was Speak Up, Arkansas! Almost 6,000 Arkansans met at 90 locations, at least one in each county, to talk about the future of education. A youth group had met earlier.
The event was organized by the Arkansas Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Education. Created by the Legislature in 2001, the commission was designed to help lawmakers respond to the Lake View school funding case. For the second time in less than a decade, courts were being asked to decide if Arkansas was complying with the state constitutional mandate to provide "a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools." For the second time, they would decide the state wasn’t in compliance.
The commission, made up of 25 state leaders in education, business and elsewhere, wanted public input into its report to the Legislature, but public meetings often don’t accomplish much. Often, an official speaks, the floor is thrown open for comments, and then people line up at a microphone to have their say. Sometimes, the more they smart off, the louder the applause.
Instead, the commission adopted a process known as "study circles" that was being coordinated by the Arkansas School Boards Association, with which I publish a magazine called Report Card. In a study circle, a facilitator guides a discussion, not a debate, that leads somewhere constructive rather than to someone "winning."
During Speak Up, Arkansas!, people were asked a simple question: "What do we want our schools to do to educate our children?" They then discussed the answers to that question. Themes emerged that were organized into a report that helped the Blue Ribbon Commission write its final recommendation to the Legislature.
Speak Up, Arkansas!, which was covered live on AETN and KATV, didn’t lead to earth-shattering conclusions. Common ideas included raising teacher salaries and increasing parental involvement. What was most important was that average citizens were involved in the process. Their voices were heard. And as the report on the event prepared by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Institute of Government stated, "People will support what they help to build."
Speak Up, Arkansas! succeeded because everyone could agree that the central question – "What do we want our schools to do to educate our children?" – was worth asking, even if they didn’t agree on all the answers.
What if average citizens were asked basic questions about other pressing issues and then given a chance to express themselves and listen to each other?
For example, what should the United States do about immigration? If diverse Americans were to gather to discuss that issue, the results would be far different than the ugly tone that debate usually takes now. Likewise, what should the United States do about the national debt? Average citizens gathered around a table would create more solutions and a healthier dialogue than today’s hopeless finger-pointing has produced.
Imagine if such a process had been incorporated during the debate over health care reform. What if medical providers, patients, insurance companies and government officials across the country had engaged in a constructive conversation about how to contain costs while still providing adequate care? The discussion would have been much more fruitful than the sloganeering we instead saw throughout that time period. I suspect something better than either the status quo or Obamacare would have emerged.
It would be hard for a Speak Up, America to occur regarding one of these issues. The current system incentivizes discord, not discourse. To put it simply, the more we yell at each other, the more likely some people are to get elected and the more money some people make.
Those are the people who are controlling our national discourse now. Those of us who want something different must speak up.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.