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.

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