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Legislators Teach Real World Civics.

America's legislators reach out to students in an effort to increase public knowledge of and respect for the legislative process.

Massachusetts Senator Richard Moore took a day out of his busy schedule last fall to visit junior and senior high school classrooms throughout his district. He talked to students about what it is like to be a state legislator. And he found himself fielding questions that ranged from whether he has met the president to his stance on public funding for stadiums.

What would lead a legislator to devote time to such an activity? Why is it important to answer the simple questions of youngsters? Because these kids are at risk of becoming the cynical and distrustful, non-voters of tomorrow. "Today's young people," according to David Broder of the Washington Post, "take their voting rights so much for granted that they can barely be bothered to use them."

There are many important reasons, says Moore, for state legislators to visit schools. And "state legislators are especially qualified to help students understand their roles and responsibilities as citizens." Besides their lack of interest in voting, students are less than proficient in civics and rarely get to meet political leaders. The visits also work both ways. Since legislators play a major role in education policy, they need to know what it's like for students and teachers in the schools.

KIDS DON'T KNOW CIVICS

In a recent national test, more than 75 percent of fourth graders, eighth graders and 12th graders fell below the proficient level in civics according to a report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In addition, young people tend to be alienated from politics; few vote or run for office.

When the American Political Science Association sponsored a survey of political science students at the University of South Florida in Tampa, it showed that high school government classes don't teach the basics of being an involved citizen. Students rarely hear about government as a career option. Only 9 percent of those surveyed ever had an elected official visit their high school class. But for those who did get to talk to an elected official, running for election someday seemed more of a possibility. The majority of those who never received a visit indicated they would not want to seek political office.

"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 the next generation of voters," says Senator Moore. That is why he sponsored a Senate resolution last year that supported NCSL's America's Legislators Back to School Day. Arizona, California, Iowa, Ohio and Nevada also participated in the pilot project. The program will be available to all 50 states this year and will become an annual event for the third Friday of every September.

IN A LEGISLATOR'S SHOES

The event is designed to teach students what it's like to be a state legislator--to put kids in the shoes of a lawmaker. The purpose is to help students understand the pressures, conflicts and difficulties that legislators deal with in trying to solve public problems--to make them real people. It's a simple way to focus state legislatures on civic education on the same day all across the country.

Moore's back to school day gave him a chance to tell students about his life as a lawmaker. His morning started at Shepherd Hill School where he met with middle and senior high classes. Moore talked about how he got his start in politics and why he chose public service. He engaged the seventh grade class in a discussion of school issues. They became most animated when he asked if the school year should be longer. "No way!," they shouted. Moore let the students know that these issues are not simple, that a change in the length of the school year not only affects them, but also affects teachers' hours and pay, bus schedules and the length of the school day.

The students wanted to know about his typical day that Moore says starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. The long hours and busy schedule surprised many. And they asked about a legislator's salary and whether he liked his job.

Moore talked to the 11th grade class about representing many diverse constituents and how he balances competing interests. "There are lots of people who want to try and convince you to do something their way," he says. "But you have to remember you represent all the people--not just those with a special interest."

DEBATE IN MASSACHUSETTS

In Massachusetts, Senator Bob Bernstein helped middle school students understand that debate is a necessary part of the legislative process. The students were amazed as he described a four-hour argument over just one word in the death penalty bill introduced in the last session. "The discussion was necessary because it is so important that we get it right," says Bernstein.

"The goal is to get young people interested in the political process. If we just get three or four of them to register to vote, we've made a huge impact," says Ohio Senator Richard Finan who spoke to a high school government class. Not only did Finan speak to students, he spent the lunch hour talking education issues with the superintendent, school board members and the principals from the district.

Teachers who participated were positive about the event. "Thank goodness that the government [legislature] is now seeing the importance of grooming the upcoming voters," says Dorothy P. Brown, a teacher at Buchtel High School in Ohio. "It is so necessary that young people see the relationship of what the comprehensive roles of government contribute to their lives."

The program had a real and immediate impact in Iowa. Diane Bolender, director of the Legislative Service Bureau, reports that an applicant for a page position in the legislature said she decided to apply after hearing her lawmaker speak in class on Back to School Day.

Some members used the day as an opportunity to see the effect of recent legislation on the schools; for example, smaller class sizes. Others found themselves very popular, receiving invitations from every school in their district. More than 70 legislators served as teachers during the pilot stage of the program. As a result, nearly 4,000 students heard about what it is like to be a state lawmaker.

With distrust of elected officials at an all-time high and voting participation at an all-time low, something as simple as visiting the future citizens for a day can only help.

NCSL's Jan Goehring coordinates America's Legislators Back to School Day.

JOIN IN TODAY

America's Legislators Back to School Day, the third Friday in September, will educate young people about the legislative process, focus legislatures on civic education on the same day across the country and build links between the schools and legislatures.

If you would like to reach out to students in your district call Jan Goehring or Karl Kurtz in the NCSL Denver office or look for the name of your state coordinator on the program's Web site at www.ncsl.org/public/backsch.htm

NCSL'S CIVIC EDUCATION PROGRAMS

America's Legislators Back to School Day is part of a national civic education campaign, called the Trust for Representative Democracy, recently launched by the National Conference of State Legislatures to help citizens better understand the operations of state legislatures and the role of individual lawmakers.

The trust is a comprehensive program of outreach and education developed in response to concerns that youngsters are missing out on vital knowledge about citizenship and the political process. These programs also are designed to help people appreciate the nature of representative democracy and the importance of public debate and compromise on issues. Other programs operating under the trust are:

* A New Public Perspective on Representative Democracy. This is a long-term project that will provide civic education on representative democracy to students and citizens at all levels. Four political scientists have written a new guide to the legislative process designed to counter widespread public distrust regarding legislatures and lawmakers. It offers a more positive and accurate view of politicians and legislative institutions.

* Project Citizen. This is a popular national academic competition for middle school students focusing on community public policy problems. NCSL cosponsors Project Citizen with the Center for Civic Education. Project Citizen is designed to improve knowledge about state and local government and develop students' capacity to participate responsibly in their government.

* Civic Education Awards. NCSL is initiating a new national awards program that will recognize legislatures, corporations, foundations and organizations for outstanding achievement in civic education on representative democracy.
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Author:Goehring, Jan
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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