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.

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