'Back to School Day' Draws Lawmakers To Classrooms

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After Virginia state Delegate Jeannemarie A. Devolites was introduced to the 90 squirming 4th graders in the cafeteria of Louise Archer Elementary School here, she asked her audience a seemingly obvious question: "Does anyone have any idea what I do?"

The answer was not so obvious in the crowded lunchroom. Just a smattering of hands went up, and it was only after a couple of wild guesses that one child hit the nail on the head and said, "Make state laws."

But Ms. Devolites, a Republican, was unperturbed by the responses of the 9- and 10-year-olds. Teaching students about her job, she said, is why she visited the school earlier this month as part of the America's Legislators Back to School Day.

Organizers at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures decided to take the program nationwide this year following a successful pilot program a year ago in which lawmakers from six states visited schools.

"That kind of education is important for the kids," Ms. Devolites said, adding that she is battling widespread public cynicism toward politicians. "I want to reverse that trend with the upcoming population," said the lawmaker, who has represented this suburban Washington community in the Virginia House of Delegates since 1998.

As many as 2,000 state legislators around the country went into schools Sept. 15 to promote civic education and, they hoped, to buck that cynical trend. Reversing negative images of legislators as argumentative and ineffective is a major goal of the national campaign.

"We felt it was necessary to undertake a direct-action campaign to try to carry a much more positive message about the roles and responsibilities of legislators in this country," said Karl T. Kurtz, the director of state services for the NCSL.

The NCSL wants to portray state legislators as concerned about what their constituents think, while also showing that enormous disagreements come with the territory, and that the only way to get anything done in the lawmaking arena is through negotiation and compromise.

"That is a very different view than the cynical one," Mr. Kurtz said.

Compromise, debate, and negotiation played out on the floor of the cafeteria at Travilah Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Md., when about 100 4th graders gathered on the legislative back- to-school day for a civics lesson taught by Maryland state Delegate Mark K. Shriver.

Querying Students

State history is taught in 4th grade in both Maryland and Virginia, which is why students in that grade were chosen to hear their state delegates speak.

Mr. Shriver, a Democrat and a nephew of President John F. Kennedy, told the students about a debate in the Maryland state House in which the legislators had to decide whether to spend $250 million on building a new football stadium or on schools. He then asked the students to stand and argue their positions. (Even though Mr. Shriver voted to spend the money on schools, the majority of the legislature voted to spend the money on the stadium.)

At Travilah Elementary, a majority of the football- stadium supporters said that building a new field would create more jobs, while the school funding supporters argued that, in order to get a job, one needs a good education.

One little girl stood up and told the assembly that, maybe if they had more money for their school, everyone could have regular classrooms instead of portable classrooms. She said she was sick of people telling her that she went to school in a trailer.

Two-Way Street

That kind of feedback is what Mr. Shriver loves to hear. He said it tells him what is important to students, and what is important to their parents as well. "They are reflecting what their parents are saying around the dining room table," he said.

He added that he visits schools often, and that by talking to students and teachers, he can learn for himself where the students are spending time after school and if a school is being well-maintained.

The annual budget for Travilah Elementary's district, the Montgomery County, Md., public schools, exceeds $1 billion. "It is important to see how those dollars are being spent," said Mr. Shriver, who has represented part of the county in the legislature since 1995.

That two-way communication is one of the benefits of the national back-to-school initiative, organizers say. "While legislators are wanting to talk about their roles and responsibilities, we also want them to have direct experience with what is going on in schools," Mr. Kurtz said.

The NCSL official added that the event also gives teachers an opportunity to show off their accomplishments, and to bring their concerns directly to their legislators.

"It is important that legislators show they care about what is going on in schools," Mr. Kurtz said.

Vol. 20, Issue 4, Pages 20-21

Published in Print: September 27, 2000, as 'Back to School Day' Draws Lawmakers To Classrooms
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