You are here


So You Want to Be a Politician

Civics lessons are most fruitful when they put students right in the middle of political action.

The presidential vote-counting debacle of 2000 was the first in a spate of recent national events that put the spotlight on understanding our democracy, Constitution and lawmaking.

After the election was resolved, President George W. Bush maintained the focus with his call for Americans to be "citizens, not spectators." The terrorist attacks on September 11, the resulting war on terror and its attention to homeland security, and the new likelihood of war with Iraq have kept issues like privacy, war powers and the duties of citizenship in our collective consciousness.

These issues are on the minds of young people, too. And thanks to innovative local and national programs, students are learning firsthand the true meanings of citizenship and leadership. From a mock Congress convened by Seattle-area U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn and Iowa's Capitol Youth Day, to visits to the heart of Washington, D.C., civic education is leaving the classroom and going to where the action is.

Program goals range from encouraging leadership among top-tier students to teaching citizenship as the responsibility of all, academic achievers or not. These programs also vary significantly in cost, from free to thousands of dollars per student.

Margaret Branson, associate director of the Center for Civic Education in Washington, says that "part of [the increased interest in civic education] has been since President Bush's inaugural. ... There's also been a great push by the Federal judiciary."

All Politics is Local

One of the largest programs, free to all takers, is sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, and partially funded by Congress. Project Citizen has middle school classes identify and study a local public policy issue, propose and evaluate solutions, and develop an action plan to address the problem. Student work is displayed in a class portfolio with display and documentation sections.

"What it does is ask kids to operate as a class," Branson says. "We are not interested in producing stars, or finding the one outstanding student leader to send to some leadership conference. We're interested in seeing that kids learn to work as a group because that's how we work as citizens."

When the project is complete, organizers encourage teachers to participate in a culminating event where the students present the issue to a panel of community members who act as legislative committee members. The format gives students an up-close opportunity to understand how public policy is formulated. (Classes may also submit portfolios to compete against other schools locally, eventually leading to statewide and national competitions.)

"We designed it for middle school kids, sixth through ninth grade, but there's such demand for it we're working on a new version for high school" that will be a more sophisticated look into the policy-making process, Branson says.

CCE supports the program with free syllabi and course materials, along with significant teacher training. There are coordinators in every congressional district in the 50 states, along with programs in Russia, the Philippines and 30 other countries. As of May 2001, Branson says more than 300,000 students had participated in Project Citizen since it began in the early 1990s.

In the 8th Congressional district of U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) is another locally oriented, free event. For the last four years, Dunn's staff has put together a mock Congress project involving more than 200 high school juniors and seniors from her district.

The students are given information about two national issues in advance of the first mock Congress meeting. When they meet for an all-day session in early March, they hear from a panel of speakers from the government, elect a speaker of the house and are divided into four committees. Each committee works on formulating bills that may eventually be presented to the entire Congress for a vote. After several committee meetings, the entire group reconvenes in late March for floor debates and votes. All of it is as serious as it is fun.

"We get them thinking about issues that are going on in their area [and] their world, and thinking in terms of solutions," says Neal Strege, an organizer on Dunn's staff. "We want to get them to understand a little better what Congress is like. ... It's kind of a nebulous place if you don't spend a lot of time watching C-SPAN."

Strege recommends that districts interested in replicating Dunn's program contact a local congressperson or senator. "It takes a lot of effort, but it's worth it," he says. "I think the kids get a lot out of it."

A case in point is Kevan Yalowitz, 18, elected speaker of the house in the 2002 mock Congress, which focused on homeland security and regional transportation issues. In his role as speaker, Yalowitz helped formulate ideas but couldn't sponsor bills. "The vast majority of the bills [related] to homeland security. The spring after September 11, it was really good for us to think about [these] issues," he says. While he acknowledges that some good ideas were presented about regional transportation, "it didn't draw the same sort of feelings that homeland security did."

"I think [mock Congress is] a great way to involve students and young people in the lawmaking process, being that they can't vote," adds Yalowitz, who is now an intern on Dunn's re-election campaign. "It was also a good time for me to be able to use my communication skills to be elected by my peers. That's a good opportunity for anyone."

Secretary of Students

Increasing political awareness and participation by young people has been part of the mission of Chester J. Culver, Iowa's secretary of state, since he was elected in 1998. A former high school government and history teacher, Culver organized the Iowa Student Political Awareness Club.

Citing research from the National Association of Secretaries of State, Culver notes that the three key reasons that young people don't vote are lack of access to the political process and candidates, lack of information about the process and candidates, and lack of understanding of the mechanics of politics and voting.

With these deficiencies in mind, ISPAC sponsors many hands-on programs: the three-day Capitol Project that gives students the opportunity to see the legislature debate; ISPAC caucus and debates; and mock elections, which distributes voter guides to students, organizes candidate forums and collects votes via Internet, fax and e-mail.

Other popular ISPAC programs are Capitol Youth Day, which brings more than 1,000 students and teachers to Des Moines; legislative youth forums, which inform students about pending youth-related legislation; and the ISPAC newsletter and Web site.

Washington Welcomes

For teachers and students who aren't satisfied by a mock Congress or trip to the state Capitol, there are a handful of specialized programs where students can see national politics up close.

The most selective is the U.S. Senate Youth Program, which invites two students from each state to spend an all-expenses-paid week in Washington with visits to Capitol Hill, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon and the State Department. Sponsored by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, the program also awards each student a $5,000 college scholarship.

Education officials in each state select the most deserving students. Nominees must be elected student-body representatives, have outstanding academic achievement and participate in extracurricular and community activities. Some states even have a current events test to winnow down the prospective field.

Sue Sliker, who works in the New Jersey Department of Education's office of innovative programming, organizes the selection process in her state. "We feel very strongly that we should select the cream of the crop," she says. "I think we try to look at people who are future leaders."

Other programs, operated by the Congressional Youth Leadership Council, the Close Up Foundation and other non-profit foundations, bring thousands of high school students to Washington each year for similar experiences.

The CYLC accepts nominations from teachers, program alumni and the College Board. Nominated students are invited to apply and accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis. While there are some scholarships available, the program cost is steep at $1,145, not including transportation to Washington.

"Our mission is to foster and inspire young people to achieve their full leadership potential," says Rachel Kurtz-Phelan, a program administrator.

The CUF's similar program is "Close Up Washington," which escorts about 25,000 students around the Capitol and to visits with lawmakers each year for about $1,000 per student, not including travel costs. Unlike the CYLC, Close Up is "open to any student. They don't need to be an A student; any young person interested in coming [who] can raise the tuition is welcome," says Marcia Gustafson, spokeswoman for the group.

"Citizenship is for everybody. We want everyone to be involved in their community. We want [all] young [people] to know they can make a difference," she adds.

Constitutional Convention

Getting students to relate to the Constitution and other civics topics can be an exercise in ingenuity. The Center for Civic Education has tackled this task with its nationwide curriculum emphasizing the foundational principles of the Constitution and its amendments. Dubbed "We the People," the project was developed in celebration of the bicentennial of the Constitution in 1987. The late Chief Justice Warren Burger led the initiative.

The "We the People" course materials, provided free to any district, are divided into six distinct units, each focusing on one area of Constitutional freedom. Classes are divided into six teams, each charged with becoming experts in that area by reading the provided texts and considering modern-day applications. The culmination of the project is a competition where each team makes a presentation about their unit, and then accepts spontaneous questions from an assembled panel of community leaders or elected officials.

"What the kids have to be able to do is not give the correct answer, but be able to back up their answer with evidence, both historical and [from] court cases," says Bill Hatcher, superintendent of Kern High School District in Bakersfield, Calif., where 12 of the 14 schools participate in the project.

After the class competition, winning teams can proceed to district, state and eventually the national "We the People" championships in Washington, D.C. Kern's schools have won two of the last three state championships, students benefiting no doubt from Hatcher's commitment to the project.

"It gives me as a superintendent a chance to go in and work with kids. I commit 10 days a year in which I go in and work with teams and ask them questions," Hatcher says.

"To me it's a win-win for a superintendent because the farther you get in our business of education, the farther you get from kids. If you really make it in our business you never see a kid, which bothers me. I want to have some credibility, be in the classroom."

Rebecca Sausner,, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.