America's Legislators Back to School Program
Where's My Voice?
Don't We All Agree?
Whose Special Interest?
This guide will aid classroom teachers in preparing their students for the America's Legislators Back to School Program sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). It offers background information on the goals of the event and activities to use as a complement to the legislator's visit. NCSL has also prepared a student pamphlet about representative democracy called "Your Ideas Count, Questions and Answers About Representative Democracy." In addition, many legislators will use a video of the same name, produced by NCSL for classroom use, for their presentation that follows the themes of the pamphlet. Students will learn that:
- Disagreements are a natural part of life--at home and in the legislature;
- Among any group of people, compromise is a necessity--not a sell-out;
- Our chances of being heard by our elected representatives increase when we join with others who share our views.
State legislators can contribute to a much-needed improvement in the quality of civic education by sharing their experience and explaining America's tradition of representative democracy to students. State legislators are especially qualified to help students understand their roles and responsibilities as citizens.
That is why the National Conference of State Legislatures and lawmakers across the nation joined together to launch a new civic education initiative: Trust for Representative Democracy. Based on the ideas and fundamental principles set forth by the framers of the Constitution, the Trust is designed to engage young people and build their understanding and support for America's democratic institutions and counter the recent heightened cynicism and distrust of the legislative process. The America's Legislators Back to School Program is designed to teach young people what it's like to be a state legislator: the processes, the pressures, and the debate, negotiation and compromise that are the very fabric of representative democracy. These programs will build relationships between legislators and citizens to bring the process and the people closer together.
The issues that state legislatures deal with are critical ones for people of all ages, including high school students. Among the many things that the legislature decides are the following:
- Length of the school year
- Requirements for driver's licenses
- Regulations involving abortion
- Drinking age
- Seat belt safety requirements
- Air and water pollution regulations
- Land set aside for parks and open spaces
- Student testing requirements
- Qualifications for teachers
- Penalties for criminal behavior
- Location of highways
- Funding for schools, transportation, health, and social services
Because everyone's life can be affected by legislation, it is important that people pay attention to and get involved in the political process. That means voting, joining groups, contacting elected public officials, and advocating interests and values. In our system of representative democracy, participation can and does make a difference. In other words, your ideas count.
As important as civic engagement may be, it is not enough. Americans need to have a sense of what their political system is about, how it works, and what they can and cannot expect from it. They need to understand an trust in our system of representative democracy: to accept the fact that everyone in our diverse society does not agree and to realize that most of the time they cannot get everything they want in the public policy arena.
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and two other groups--the American Political Science Association (APSA) and the Center for Civic Education (CCE)--embarked in 1999 on a multi-year project to offer civic education on representative democracy to students and citizens of all ages. The first task of the project was to figure out the message to be conveyed about how representative democracy ought to work and how it actually does work. In collaboration with these organizations, four political scientists have formulated a mini-curriculum, titled "A New Public Perspective on Representative Democracy." This perspective was tested with college students, who interned in state legislatures across the nation. It is presented here in an adapted, abbreviated form that can be used for the America's Legislators Back to School Program and complements the video and student pamphlet produced for the event. A more in-depth curriculum for high school social studies courses is also available.
The New Public Perspective is based generally on the research of congressional and state legislative scholars, whose work presents a very different picture than that which most people have of our nation's legislative institutions. The perspective presented here offers teachers and their students an alternative view, and a more accurate one, of the political system in which they live.
The following lists the common myths, the new perspective on each, and activities to help students understand the concepts.
I. Where's My Voice?
Common Myth: Legislators don't care what regular people think.
More Likely the Case: Legislators are very concerned about what the people in their district want and need. Everybody's opinion is invited and welcome. But organizations that represent large numbers of people often get more attention than an individual person does.
- Ask a visiting legislator about his or her district, what the people are like, what's important to them. Also, how often does the legislator meet with constituents and groups in the constituency? What kinds of issues do people contact him or her about? What do legislators do for their constituents? How close to constituents does a legislator feel?
- Use the web site of your state legislature to gather information about specific legislators and profiles of the districts that they represent. A list of state legislative web sites can be found at http://www.ncsl.org/public/sitesleg.htm.
- Ask students to discuss how they would relate to constituents if they were in the legislature. How would they vote, if they felt one way on an issue and a large number of constituents felt the other way? On what issues would they follow their own opinions rather than the predominance of constituency opinion?
II. Don't We All Agree?
Common Myth: The public mostly agrees on what is right so legislators should pass the laws that the people want.
More Likely the Case: There are so many different opinions in our society and very little agreement except at a very general level. It is the job of the legislature to help find a meeting point between these different points of view so they can pass laws that work well and benefit the largest number of people possible.
- Ask the class to discuss and come to a consensus about a school issue. Point out the differing opinions about the issue and the difficulty of resolving those differences. Ask if students think there should be more agreement in the legislature than in the classroom.
- Ask the visiting legislator about a specific issue he or she has dealt with in the legislature. Have them describe the different positions on the issue, who they heard from about it and how, if at all, their position changed during the course of the debate.
- Select a controversial issue that has multiple positions that the state legislature might have to address; e.g., hand gun control, school vouchers, the death penalty. For each issue develop 4-5 specific position statements. Consider each of the issues one at a time. Begin by posting the 4-5 position statements at intervals along the classroom wall. Briefly discuss what each position means and then have students move to the place along the wall that best represents their own position on the issue. Have the students at each position discuss with one another why they are standing there. Next, have several students at each position report out to the whole class as to why they are standing where they are. After students have had a chance to speak, provide an opportunity for students to ask questions they have of each other. Finally, allow any student who wishes to do so to change positions. If students do change, ask them to share their reasons. Pose the question: What does this exercise tell us about the complexity of the public's perceived consensus on policy issues?
III. Whose Special Interests?
Common Myth: The values and interests of the average person are not represented because legislators do what the special interest groups and the big campaign contributors want them to do.
More Likely the Case: Many people are members of organized interest groups; and legislators are dependent upon the good will and votes of these various groups. So Americans are actually well represented both by their interest groups and their legislators.
- Ask the students to indicate one or two of their own beliefs or views, and figure out by whom they are represented in the state capitol. Ask them about the interests of their parents. Are they represented, and by whom? Ask a visiting legislator what kind of groups and lobbyists he or she hears from, how they operate and what is persuasive.
- Ask the students to indicate one or two areas of public policy in which they have strong views or beliefs; e.g., environmental protection, school violence, animal rights. Conduct an Internet search to find organizations and interest groups that share this view. Ask students to consider how effectively these organizations and interest groups speak for them. Ask students if they feel strongly enough about their view or belief to join or support these organizations or interest groups. What are other methods of expressing one's views and beliefs to representatives? Assess the effectiveness of the various alternatives. What might result if individuals, organizations, and interest groups were denied opportunities to monitor and influence the policy-making process?
- Discuss whether representative democracy would be better or worse off without interest groups and lobbyists.
IV. Why Compromise?
Common Myth: The lawmaking process doesn't work well because of politics and needless conflict.
More Likely the Case: The democratic process often involves a lot of argument as legislators attempt to find common ground and areas of agreement for the different values and interests of the many voters they each represent. Sometimes these differences are hotly debated for long periods of time but most are settled through compromise.
- Ask the legislator about issues that have been compromised in the process as opposed to those where there were absolute winners and absolute losers. Ask the legislator to discuss a bill or issue where he or she had to compromise their position, why and what was the result.
- Choose a controversial issue on which your students are likely to disagree. The issue could be personal and everyday (What kind of pizza should we order? Where shall we go on a field trip?), a local school policy issue (open vs. closed campus, dress codes, cafeteria food service) or a state policy issue (length of school year, animal rights, voting age). Assign the students the task of simulating a legislative session and reaching a decision about this issue. Discuss the outcome of the process. Were they able to reach a decision? If not, was that a reflection of lack of consensus among the students? If so, how important was negotiation and compromise among students of differing opinions?
For more information on the America's Legislators Back to School Program, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
or call (303) 364-7700.