The West Virginia Legislature’s Back to School Program is a national civic education initiative designed to teach our state’s young people the value of the legislative process through interactive classroom visits from local state lawmakers. Taking place in December of each year, the primary focus of the visits is for the students to learn what it is like to be a state legislator: the process, debate, negotiation and compromise - which are the very fabric of our representative democracy. In turn, students are able to communicate with policymakers and talk with them about the importance of the Legislature. The program is targeted for students grades 3-12 and hopes to encourage these future voters and leaders to grow accustomed to the legislative process and understand that their ideas count.
The West Virginia Legislature passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 28 during the 2007 Regular Legislative Session, which officially designates the month of December as West Virginia Legislature’s Back to School Month and further dedicates the efforts of bringing about greater understanding of our representative form of government to the youth of the state.
It is evident that civic participation by American youth is down and there seems to be no sign of the trend reversing itself in the near future. Nearly 50 percent of 18 to 24 year olds voted in 1972, but during the 2000 election, only 33 percent entered the polling booths. Less than half of 18 and 19 year olds are registered to vote.
In addition, a poll of 18-24 year olds conducted by the National Association of Secretaries of State shows that 50 percent say, “You can’t trust politicians because they are dishonest.” Two-thirds of young people say, “My generation’s voice is important but no one is listening.“ Nine out of 10 agree with the statement, “A few big interests run the government.“ Teenagers seem to suffer from the same cynicism and distrust for government that are prevalent among many adults. And many teens say their cynicism comes from what they hear from their parents and relatives.
It is this cynicism and distrust for the legislative process and our representative democracy that the West Virginia Legislature’s Back to School Program is looking to counteract. Recent studies have shown evidence that the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement. Researchers in such fields as education, urban poverty, unemployment, the control of crime and drug abuse, and even health have discovered that successful outcomes are more likely in civically engaged communities. They encourage an element of social trust, which can lead to cooperation and communication.
The West Virginia Legislature’s Back to School Program provides a contemporary approach for engaging students in understanding the value of democracy in a non-partisan and apolitical format, to reach out to young citizens, educate them about the legislative process and dispel some of their cynicism, before it’s too late. The program will look to introduce students at a younger age to the values of our systems of government and put kids into the shoes of lawmakers through interactive lesson plans and lively classroom debates.
Educators simply need to contact the West Virginia Legislature’s Office of Reference and Information, or their local lawmaker directly, and request a classroom visit. Lawmakers are also encouraged to contact their local schools and set up a visitation, or to simply promote the program in their area. For more information, please call (304) 347-4836 or toll free at 1-877-565-3447, or email the State Program Coordinator.
The National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) Trust for Representative Democracy program offers supporting educational materials including booklets, videos and lesson plans that address questions and answers about representative democracy.
The lesson plans outline for students the importance of representative democracy, the message that their voice counts and the valid role of special interest groups in the process. The plans complement the NCSL publication “Your Ideas Count,” a student booklet used by legislators as a “leave behind” resource after their classroom visit. Teachers are invited to download the lesson plans and use them as appropriate in their classrooms.