The suddenly hot debate over adding more rigor to public schools in Louisiana sparked a five-hour public hearing last week.
Whether it was fairly done is another matter.
The site of the gathering was the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which meets at the Claiborne Building just north of the State Capitol.
The panel approved the new standards, which are called Common Core, in 2010.
They are math and English benchmarks and have been adopted by 45 states.
However, worries about their impact, from Gov. Bobby Jindal to BESE member Lottie Beebe, led to the unusual gathering, which was mostly to give backers and critics another chance to sound off.
The committee that was supposed to tackle the issue was tentatively set to meet at 2:30 p.m.
BESE also added a slew of other controversial topics in earlier committees, which inevitably dragged on for hours and pushed everything behind schedule.
That meant the board started the committee with Common Core at 5:45 p.m., more than three hours after the scheduled start.
Rank-and-file people passionate about the issue — 70 signed up to testify — got their chance to sound off starting about 6:30 p.m. and ended at 10:45 p.m. on a Tuesday night.
“The wait was very, very tiring,” Patricia Terry said. “By the time you got up to testify, you were already tired.”
Terry and her husband, Guy, live in the Shreveport area, which is about 265 miles from Baton Rouge.
They came down the night before so they could get to BESE in plenty of time, especially since they were told the committee could start a half an hour earlier than the posted time.
“We thought it was going to be around 1:30 p.m.,” she said.
Instead, the couple waited from 10 a.m. until about 7 p.m. to make their views known in the allowable 2 minutes.
The Terrys and dozens of others waited while BESE argued about the details of public school teacher evaluations, charter schools and state aid for pre-kindergarten programs.
“We tried to be attentive,” Patricia Terry said. “It was a long wait. We wanted to have our voices heard. It was very important.”
The slowdown is nothing new.
BESE used to spend two days on committee work, then part of a third day taking final action as the full board.
Now it usually handles all four committees in a single day, which sometimes extends well into the evening, then wraps up things the next day.
“On occasion, it is inconvenient,” said Chas Roemer, who lives in Baton Rouge and is president of BESE, the day after the hearing.
The new schedule was created to consolidate issues, allow the panel to focus on key topics and eliminate long-winded discussions on arcane topics.
“I think the old way of doing business allowed major items to be hidden inside a thousand other things,” Roemer said.
“As you notice, we spent a lot of time on very few issues and only two or three took a lot of time,” he said.
“That is really what I want us to do,” Roemer said. “Less time on things that are inconsequential and more time on things that are more controversial and deserve more scrutiny.”
He said the schedule is not aimed at stifling public comment.
“We are traveling the state; we are having more public meetings,” Roemer said of the board. “I have made it clear to every board member that if you want an item on the agenda, it goes on the agenda.”
Despite the lengthy delay, most backers and critics of Common Core stuck around.
Jeanne Burns, a top official of the state Board of Regents, which oversees higher education, signed up to speak at 8:30 a.m. and was still on hand to testify when called 10 hours later.
Others who took time off work, traveled or had to make special child care arrangements waited their turn and cheered on those who agreed with them.
Patricia Terry said she and her husband would have headed back to Shreveport after the hearing if it had not been delayed.
They instead spent a second night in Baton Rouge.
Terry said her testimony — she has concerns about Common Core — was her first appearance before BESE.
Whether she will return is unclear.
“It would be difficult coming back down knowing the kind of wait we had,” she said.
Will Sentell covers state education issues for The Advocate.