Students Nationwide Learn To Lobby for Education
At age 17, Michael White is already an accomplished lobbyist.
Watching his school face losing a few staff members and worthy programs because of proposed district budget cuts, the senior at the 1,750-student Robbinsdale-Cooper High School in New Hope, Minn., organized a group of students last month to see what they could do about the pending reductions, which the district maintains are needed because of inadequate state aid.
The group, Concerned Advocates for Reforming Education, or CARE, pulled together about 300 supporters, including students from across the state, to rally at the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul in protest. The students are hoping the legislature will direct some of the state's current $2 billion budget surplus to education.
While Mr. White awaits the outcome of the group's efforts, he is philosophical about the protest's effectiveness. "If it doesn't work, we're no worse off than before," he said in a recent interview. "We can't pass bills ourselves, but we can bring attention to problems."
Mr. White is one of many students who are learning about politics by actually becoming part of the legislative process. Nationwide, students are pushing their state legislators to pass measures on a host of different subjects.
Usually when students step into the political arena, it's because of an issue that directly affects them, said Wendy Schaetzel Lesko, the executive director of Activism 2000, a Rockville, Md.-based group that acts as a national clearinghouse for youth activism.
Students in two government classes at the 1,500-student Apollo High School in Glendale, Ariz., for example, asked their state lawmakers to support the use of lottery money for college scholarships. The students followed the proposal as a part of a project to help them understand the political process. A House concurrent resolution that would have a portion of funds from the state lottery go toward scholarships is now in committee.
In the past, student activism typically was the domain of a handful of elected leaders, but there has been some change, according to Ms. Lesko. While those involved in student councils tend to work on governance issues, it is everyday students angered by "zero tolerance" policies or dress codes who are speaking out more and more, she said. Those students have worked on such matters as getting voting seats on their local and state boards of education and pushing legislation on issues such as safe schools and financial aid for college.
"Most students are motivated primarily because they're fired up and say they want to do something," said Ms. Lesko, whose group offers youths strategic advice and links them to other students working on similar projects.
And high school students aren't the only ones getting into the act.
In Hawaii, elementary pupils went to the state Capitol to lobby against a proposal that would have increased class sizes. The legislature had already rejected the plan, however.
For most younger students, though, the galvanizing issues are usually less momentous.
In Fort Collins, Colo., 4th graders at the 522-student Kruse Elementary School who were working on a reading and history project in September, found their official state song unappealing and decided to campaign for a change.
They lobbied local legislators and picked up state Rep. Bob Bacon, a Democrat who is a retired teacher, as a sponsor for the proposed change.
But students at another Colorado school were doing the same thing, except they were pushing for a different song. When Rep. Bacon told the students that the two schools must agree on a song before he would take up their cause, the 4th graders got a lesson in the school of hard knocks.
"The other school chose not to discuss a compromise," said Sharon Panik, the Kruse Elementary pupils' teacher. Though the outcome was disappointing, it was a good experience for the students, Ms. Panik said.
"The only downside is that it takes time, but the students know far more about their state."
While many students take on the role of lobbyist as part of an ad hoc class project, a few states, such as Maryland and Oregon, actively teach their students to be politically involved, according to the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Student Councils.
In Maryland, for example, students are often deeply involved in getting education legislation passed. The state education department has a school- and community-outreach office that works specifically to interest students in school reform issues. Each year since 1981, the office has held a session to teach up to 800 students statewide how to research legislation. Students also attend workshops on how to lobby and create a platform.
"It's a very organized system," said Catherine McCall, the executive director of the Maryland Association of Student Councils and a student-affairs specialist for the state's outreach office.
"It is critical to get kids connected to what goes on in schools," said Sue Travetto, a former executive director of the MASC. However, she added, "kids can't get involved unless they have the skills to process what they get involved in."
The system, she said, has expanded on its original premise of teaching students and then sending them back into their schools and communities to get involved.
Students who become a part of the MASC programs learn skills such as how to cooperate with one another, Ms. Travetto said.
Support for student lobbyists in Maryland has grown over the years. When such activism began to increase about a decade ago, a lot of people said students were too young to be involved in this kind of work, Ms. Travetto said. But that has changed little by little, and Maryland's programs are now emulated in other states.
"Some states have taken our materials to replicate what we're doing," Ms. Travetto said. Maryland's program stands out from leadership programs in other states because it is sponsored by the state education department. The department also subsidizes a portion of the program's annual budget.
'Passion and Commitment'
In Oregon, programs to get students interested in government emphasize teaching leadership skills to nearly 5,000 students each year. Students learn how to start projects in their schools and be effective student council officers by attending workshops and conferences during the school year and the summer. The programs have an annual budget of $250,000; the money comes from workshops and conferences, with additional funding from the state's group representing school administrators.
"Kids need to network as much as adults do," said Nancy Moen, the executive director of the Oregon Association of Student Councils, a part of the Conference of Oregon School Administrators.
Still, added Ms. Lesko of Activism 2000, "when young people have done their homework, they have an ability to influence."
"Legislators see the passion and commitment of these young citizens," she said, "and they don't want to quash their spirit."