Engaging Students in Post-Election Public Policy, Part VI: Finding Resources to Support Implementation or Learning from Defeat

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Our post-election public policy process journey concludes today with a piece on finding resources to support implementation or learning from defeat.

This series began by making the case for engaging students in the public policy process. Then, students are asked to define the problem they are seeking to address and explore possible policy alternatives that address both symptoms and root causes. Next, who in government can help solve the identified problem? These decision-makers must be persuaded and work within institutions with established calendars, a civics lesson in its own right. The media must be engaged throughout and viewed as a potential ally in student advocacy efforts.

Assuming success, it’s important to note that public policy wins are equivalent to battles, not the entire war. More than anything, they represent opportunities to get it right, as implementation is everything.

We live in a world of limited resources, and governments are more fiscally constrained than ever before in our lifetimes. This challenge is particularly pronounced in Illinois as we operate in a second year without a full budget, billions of unpaid bills (see below), not to mention an underfunded pension to the tune of twelve figures.

Source: Civic Federation

Both the Civic Federation and the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability provide excellent analysis of Illinois’ dire fiscal straits paired with potential paths forward. Their work and this issue must serve as a backdrop for policy advocacy in Illinois, as there’s a reasonable allergy to unfunded mandates hoisted upon local government, schools, and residents.

Yet it takes financial resources to support policy implementation, necessitating creativity in crafting plans to “preserve victory.” For example, our #CivicsIsBack campaign constitutes a public-private partnership, with funds derived from Chicago-based foundations and corporations supporting our institutional partners, civic education organizations, and teacher mentors in a combination to deliver high-quality professional development opportunities and classroom resources to teachers, schools, and districts statewide.

Shifting gears, it’s quite possible that students’ advocacy efforts end in defeat in spite of them sticking to the script we’ve provided. Defeat represents a teachable moment and hopefully a chance to redouble efforts, accounting for lessons learned, in a later policy campaign.
  • Are there small victories that can be extracted like raising visibility or an issue or establishing key legislative contacts?
  • What allies must be cultivated in order to build a winning coalition?
  • And how critical is timing to success?
It’s important not to allow students’ frustration to stymie future engagement. Encourage them to keep their heads held high, and remind them that politics is a “long game.”

This constitutes our final post for 2016. Thanks for reading the IllinoisCivics blog, sharing it on social media, and for the hard work you do in the trenches to ensure that #CivicsIsBack now and forever. Wishing you and yours the very best during this holiday season and we look forward to seeing you back here in January as we renew our collective commitments to students’ civic development.

Engaging Students in Post-Election Public Policy, Part V: Engaging the Media

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

As we engage students in the public policy process, media outreach is a vital ingredient for victory, and the lessons learned are transferrable to lifelong participation in our democracy. It goes without saying that we must begin by building students’ appetite for news of all varieties, especially state and local coverage. Weaving current and controversial discussions of these issues into class is a proven practice and part of the new civics course requirement.

But students themselves can contribute to media themselves. Many are savvy consumers of social media. True, much of their activity is likely friendship-driven and perhaps tilted towards celebrity gossip. Yet social media is also a venue for interest-drive activities, some with an overtly political focus like #BlackLivesMatter. Depending on the issue students select, they may contribute to an already active social media movement, or better yet, create one of their own.

In our push for a civics course requirement, we used the #BringCivicsBack hash tag to coordinate advocacy and provide continuous updates to supporters. Upon passage, we switched to #CivicsIsBack, which has gone viral nationally to spread the good word about the civic learning movement, its epicenter increasingly right here in Illinois.

We must not discount traditional media in student policy advocacy. Scholastic journalism outlets serve as low-hanging fruit and coverage in a student newspaper or TV broadcast can help build broader movement for a cause within a school community. And local newspapers are hungry for stories of student civic engagement. Teaching students to write, disseminate, and follow up on a press release is one option, as is placement of letters to the editor in publications serving targeted legislators’ districts.

Favorable press coverage was vital to the #BringCivicsBack campaign. We placed two front page stories in the Chicago Tribune, were endorsed on the editorial pages of both major Chicago dailies, and had powerful letters to the editor run in a number of downstate newspapers. I conducted a number of radio and television interviews along the way, and found that reporters were cheering for our cause because they understood how important civic education is for news consumption and a healthy democracy.

We later compiled these favorable press clippings and shared them with legislators. It’s hard to say what intervention turns the tide in the successful legislative effort, but earned media is a net positive and something political insiders still privilege. It also develops a healthy skill set for students to deploy throughout life both personally and professionally.

We’ll be back on Wednesday to wrap up this series, focusing on finding resources to support implementation or learning from defeat.

Engaging Students in Post-Election Public Policy, Part IV: Persuading Decision Makers and Using Calendars to Achieve Goals

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

In this fourth installment of suggested steps to engage students in the public policy process we’ll focus on persuading decision makers and using calendars to achieve their goals.

Graham and Hand’s America: The Owner’s Manual suggests that these steps be preceded by gauging and building public support for the identified cause, and we spoke at length in our second post of this series on how polling data can be used for these purposes. The authors also emphasize coalition-building, an admittedly lengthy process.

While it’s possible that students can build coalitions on their own, they may also want to research existing consortia already in place. In Illinois, we’ve been lucky to have the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition (ICMC) since 2004. A core initiative of this entity from the beginning is Illinois Democracy Schools, a statewide network of high schools deeply committed to students’ civic development.

ICMC members and Democracy Schools in particular were critical allies in our outreach in the spring of 2015 to members of the Illinois General Assembly (ILGA) on behalf of a bill to require a high school civics course. One Representative rose prior to a floor vote to report that a social studies teacher had schooled her and convinced her to switch her negative vote in committee to a “yea” vote on the floor. Another Senator leaning against the bill “voted his district” after receiving a stack of letters from students (also known as constituents).

Bills of course begin in committee, and the ILGA allows Illinois residents to weigh in on legislation assigned to committees in each respective chamber by filing electronic witness slips. Slips may be filed for and against proposed statutes, therefore eliminating a common concern among educators of compelling student advocacy on behalf of a cause contrary to his or her personal beliefs. Committee chairs report witness slip tallies as a bill is called, and this sets the tone for the debate that follows. Students may also submit written testimony to the committee that is also acknowledged by the chair and inserted into the public record.

Finally, the lawmaking process naturally lends itself to discussions of institutions and specifically the legislative calendar. Under normal rules, a bill must be filed in the House or Senate by an identified February date each year (see this sample House calendar for 2016). It must emerge from committee in the originating body one month later, and pass the full chamber by the end of April. It then travels to the opposite house and must survive both committee and a floor vote by the end of session, scheduled for late May.

Assuming passage, the bill is sent to the Governor within 30 days, and he or she has 60 days to sign or veto it (Illinois Constitution, Article IV, Section 9). In the case of the latter, the ILGA may take the bill up in fall veto session, but needs a 60% vote in both chambers to override.

Beyond learning about government institutions, calendar conversations also entail legislative strategizing given Democrats’ control of both chambers, but a Republican Governor with final discretion over their work. Democratic supermajorities have been successful in overriding a couple of his vetoes to date, but come January, Democrats will be four votes short in the House, further necessitating bipartisan compromise in order to affect policy change.

Engaging Students in Post-Election Public Policy, Part III: Identifying Who in Government Can Solve the Problem

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Last week, we tackled the first two phases of engaging students in the public policy process using America: The Owner’s Manual by Graham and Hand. We’ll continue today with the step that follows: Identifying who in government can solve the problem.

Recall that we previously asked students to identify an issue and research its symptoms and root causes. We later explored various policy alternatives, and now must identify who in government can help resolve the identified problem.

For students, this is often a lesson in federalism. While we tend to focus obsessively on national government, the reality is that most laws that impact us daily exist on the state and local level. It’s therefore likely that many issues students identify reside here.

If the potential policy solution is statutory in nature, attention turns naturally to the legislative body, be it the state legislature or city council. This is often a good opportunity to familiarize students with their local representative or alderman, who upon being contacted, may be willing to carry the bill on their young constituents’ behalf.

Another option is to do a word search for the issue on the legislature’s home page. For example, I searched for “civics” on the Illinois General Assembly’s home page and found a number of bills filed under this subject (see below). Not only will this allow students to explore a number of additional policy alternatives, but also to identify a potential ally for their own solution.


Preceding our push for the civics course requirement, we worked with two Villa Park Democrats, Representative Deb Conroy and Senator Tom Cullerton, on legislation to create a Task Force on Civic Education. The requirement was its Number One recommendation, so Conroy and Cullerton became our natural bill sponsors. They proved fierce advocates for the legislation, ultimately building strong bi-partisan majorities in their respective chambers.

The rest, of course, is history, as Illinois Civic Mission Coalition members proved vigilant advocates for the cause. We continue this story, and the arc of student engagement in the policy making process, on Thursday.

Engaging Students in Post-Election Public Policy, Part II: Defining the Problem and Gathering Information

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

On Monday, we previewed a series of posts centered on engaging students in post-election public policy advocacy. Using America: The Owner’s Manual by Graham and Hand, we’ll begin today with their first two steps in the advocacy process, defining the problem, and later, gathering information to persuade policy makers.

Illinois’ emerging social studies standards ask students to develop questions to guide their inquiries. In an undergraduate public policy class I teach, I start class with an ice breaker, asking students to identify one law they would like to change. This response becomes the problem or issue they explore throughout the semester, identifying the status quo, the causes and symptoms of the problem, and the range of views on the issue across the political spectrum.

For example, while advocating for the new civics course requirement in Illinois, we drew upon civic health data demonstrating that Illinois millennials were 47th in the country when it comes to voting regularly in local elections. Moreover, our young people rank in the bottom ten states when it comes to talking with neighbors, exchanging favors with them, and working with them to resolve community problems.

We thus concluded that our youngest residents were ill-prepared for civic life. Illinois was one of only eleven states without a civics or government course requirement for graduation, and mandated civic content was little more than window dressing in the form of the so-called “Constitution test,” Flag Code, and Pledge of Allegiance (see Section 27-3).

The problem thus identified, we pivot next to gathering information and using it to persuade policy makers. This may involve an examination of policies employed successfully in other similar jurisdictions and/ or research-based best practices.

Polling data is widely available on any number of public policy issues (and it’s fallibility in the 2016 Election is in many ways a myth). Two of my go-to sources are Gallup and the Pew Research Center. Unlike the prediction of electoral outcomes, the stakes are lower with issue-based polling. It can provide a general read on public sentiments and trends across time.

An Illinois-based poll that we used liberally for our civics advocacy efforts was conducted by our partners at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. They ran a question in 2014 on the proposal to require a high school civics course and found it polled incredibly popular. Cross-tabulated data demonstrated that the proposal polled well among both Republicans and Democrats, younger and older voters, and urban, suburban, and downstate dwellers.

We later used these favorable results to persuade policymakers, but that’s a story to be continued next week.

Poetry to Prose: Engaging Students in Post-Election Public Policy

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

In the aftermath of the 2016 Election, we’ve promised a pivot to the public policy processes and outcomes that follow. This post represents the frame through which we’ll pursue this work as we attempt to leverage the excitement and/ or fears of our students and translate it into the difficult work of democratic governance.

Illinois’ new civics course requirement embeds proven civic learning practices that align perfectly with teaching the public policy process, namely direct instruction on government institutions, discussions of current and controversial issues, service-learning, and simulations of democratic processes.
  • A deep understanding of government institutions is critical to engaging with them to affect policy change.
  • Public policy issues are by nature current and controversial. They are unresolved and members of our community may disagree vehemently about their very definition, much less available solutions.
  • Service-learning may assume direct or indirect forms, and also encompasses advocacy, much of which may happen within the confines of a classroom.
  • Simulations of the policy-making process in a legislative body, court system, or even administrative agency can illuminate the inner workings of government for our students.
Moreover, Illinois’ emerging social studies standards embrace an inquiry arc that begins by students developing questions. Later, they draw upon disciplinary knowledge and evaluate sources to answer them. Ultimately, students are asked to communicate conclusions and take informed action.

The inquiry arc mirrors the process of successfully engaging students in the public policy process. In the five-part series that follows, I’ll break down the template for civic engagement offered by Senator Bob Graham and Chris Hand in America: The Owner’s Manual.
  • Defining the problem
  • Gathering information to sway policymakers
  • Identifying who in government can solve the problem
  • Gauging and building public support for the cause
  • Persuading the decision makers
  • Using the calendar to achieve goals
  • Building coalitions for citizen success
  • Engaging the media
  • Finding resources to support the initiative
  • Preserving victory and learning from defeat
Elections are beginnings, not ends, and we invite you to join us on this journey to fulfill our professional obligations with respect to the course requirement and emerging standards. But more importantly, let’s empower our students to affect policy change whether or not their candidates of choice prevailed or went down in defeat.

Let's Do Democracy and Make Sure Civics is Woven Throughout Illinois' ESSA State Plan

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Last month, I shared testimony provided to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) on their first draft of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) State Plan. My colleague Sonia Mathew weighed in separately on our work with Illinois Democracy Schools (see page 522).

ISBE has since issued its second draft of the ESSA State Plan, responding to more than 280 individual comments, 54 from organizations, 70 from students advocating for the arts, and 60 from librarians. This post represents a call for the state’s civic learning community to do democracy and weigh on the ESSA plan prior to December 27, 2016.

It’s fair to say that the second draft of the ESSA plan provides little more than lip service to the social studies and civics in particular. However, our collective work aligns well with the central thrusts of the plan.
Please articulate these points and your own personal touches in email comments to ISBE via their designated email address (essa@isbe.net) no later than December 27, 2016. If you’re able, we also encourage you to attend Round Three Listening Tour Sessions facilitated by ISBE. They began this week in Chicago and conclude next Thursday in Decatur.

We pursue this work at a time of disconcerting uncertainty. Federal education policies are very much up in the air, and the Springfield Stalemate has only added fuel to a challenging environment. The bitter 2016 Election and its still-evolving aftermath further underline the importance of our collective efforts to educate our students for democracy. It’s up to us to make the case to our state leaders on their behalf. Better yet, follow the lead of our friends in the arts and engage them in doing the democracy we all teach.