The hearing room on the fifth floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building was packed with spectators last week who had flown across the country to hear witnesses testify on the constitutional implications of affirmative action programs.
But the lineup wasn’t composed of the usual types of people who testify before Congress. Instead, it was made up of high school students who were being scored on their “testimony” by a panel of expert judges, playing the role of lawmakers, as part of a national civics education competition.
During one hearing, in response to a judge’s question about how minority rights are ensured under the U.S. Constitution, Heidi Rickes, a senior at Essex High School in Essex Junction, Vt., argued that, “A majority of the populace does support school prayer, so that in that case, the courts have stepped in and protected the rights of the minority” to be free from government establishment of religion under the First Amendment.
The May 5 session was one in a series of mock congressional hearings that serve as the culminating activity in a social studies program called “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution.” The program, administered by the Center for Civic Education, is based in Calabasas, Calif.
The “We the People” curriculum calls for students to think critically about the document that forms the basis for the U.S. government, including its history, principles, and modern applications. Students who take part in the program tend to be more likely to vote in elections than their peers and to more closely follow current events, according to surveys conducted by the civic education group. Many of the students who participated in the national competition this year have volunteered on one of the 2008 presidential campaigns.
“Some of them come to me [already] aware and involved, and you know they’re going to be heading to law school,” said Amy Maddox, a social studies teacher at Vestavia Hills High School in Vestavia, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, who has taught the “We the People” curriculum for six years. But others “come in curious; they haven’t really defined themselves politically,” she said. “This is really the first class where they get to provide answers to these questions.”
“We the People,” along with its sister program, Project Citizen, which encourages students to address problems in their communities, received nearly $15 million from the Department of Education in fiscal 2008. “We the People” offers 11,000 classroom sets of textbooks to school districts nationwide. The center has designed curriculum materials for the elementary, middle, and high school levels, and it offers professional development to about 600 to 700 teachers nationwide each year.
Some schools simply use the curriculum and textbooks, which are also available for elementary and middle school students, to supplement other social studies course materials. Others may hold the simulated hearings in class, but don’t compete.
Other schools enter district-level and statewide competitions, seeking to qualify for the nationals. This year, each state sent a team to the Washington competition, which began with two days of early-round hearings at a Virginia hotel. The top 10 schools got to use the hearing rooms in Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill for their final day of competition.
The students play the part of hearing witnesses, and like any executive-branch official or association president testifying before a congressional committee, they must begin with an opening statement. After their testimony, the competition’s judging panel, typically made up of lawyers, university professors, and others with expertise in constitutional law, asks questions to get a sense of the depth of the students’ knowledge.
While some of the hearings centered around the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, others focused on the legal implications of current issues, such as the place of affirmative action in American society.
Students from Grant High School, in Portland, Ore., argued that affirmative action based on race has a valid role. They pointed to data showing that few minority students take part in Advanced Placement classes at their school. The judges lauded them for relating the issue to their lives.
The program has challenged students to rethink some of their political views, said Matthew Richmond, a senior at Grant High, who now finds himself becoming more conservative, after growing up in what he described as liberal city. And, though he never read the newspaper before, he’s started to pick up The New York Times every day.
“I’m not planning on going into politics,” he said, “But I will stay involved.”
And some students were enthusiastic about aspects of citizenship many consider a chore.
“I can’t wait for jury duty,” said Gwen Pastel, a senior at Vermont’s Essex High.
Funding in Doubt
Although every school in the country is invited to become involved in the competition, Robert Leming, the program’s director, acknowledged that participation from urban and rural schools isn’t as high as the Center for Civic Education would like.
That’s partly due to lack of resources. While the center covers the cost of airfare and provides a small stipend for each student, schools must raise about $900 per student to pay for ground transportation, hotels, and meals.
As for the federal contribution, securing congressional financing at this year’s levels is under threat. The center received $31.9 million in federal funding for fiscal 2008. President Bush has slated the funding for elimination in his budget proposal for fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1. Budget documents called the program’s contribution to Education Department’s mission “marginal.”
But Gayle Thieman, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, based in Silver Spring, Md., called the “We the People” materials “enormously valuable” and said “programs like these cannot be cut.”