Students get lesson on civics

Register Reporter

A discussion about civil discourse and the democratic process might have seemed dry at first for a small bloc of Iola High School students Thursday.
State Sen. Derek Schmidt expected that.
Why should students care about terms such as “correlation weighting,” or “base state aid per pupil,” he wondered aloud.
“There’s no reason you should,” he replied.
It wasn’t until Schmidt — invited by instructor Mike Shuman to pay a visit to the high school — got into the nuts and bolts of his lesson that classroom participation picked up considerably.
It was then that Schmidt explained that “jargon-intensive” verbiage bandied about the Statehouse carried real-life repercussions for Kansans of all ages.
He illustrated his point by instigating a debate among students.
In the exercise, 11 students were asked whether they favored the current state laws dictating the drinking age remain at 21. Should it be lowered to 18? Raised even higher?
Six in the audience favored a lower drinking age; the other five were happy with the status quo.
When pressed further for their reasoning, the students who voted in favor of the lower drinking age spelled out a few of their cases — kids under 21 drink anyway; the law does little to stop someone intent on drinking; and it would save money in court services with fewer defendants charged with drinking as minors.
“It would make life happier,” one girl said.
Then the kids in favor keeping the drinking age at 21 were given their say: some young adults are not physically capable of handling alcohol, one girl opined. Roads would be less safe if more potential drinkers were behind the wheel, another added.
“And those are all valid points of view,” Schmidt interjected. “But even in this small room, with a relatively homogenous group with similar backgrounds, we have substantially different opinions.”
Such debate goes on every day in Topeka, said Schmidt, who represents Iola in the state’s 15th Senate District. Schmidt also has announced his candidacy for state attorney general.

SCHMIDT, who has been in the Kansas Senate for more than eight years, noted that having an opinion may not mean much unless those points of view are shared with others.
“Suppose I’m not in this room to hear your discussion,” he said. “How do you get your opinions to me?” And further, how do “regular” citizens get heard by legislators?
Sure, many send letters, and many more communicate via e-mail. But that would just get a point across to one senator, Schmidt noted. “And there are 40 of us. Twenty-one is the magic number. You’d have to get 20 of my colleagues to agree with me in order to get legislation passed,” Schmidt said. “I doubt many of you will organize a phone bank” in order to spread their points of view to other senators across the state, Schmidt said.
So how do you reach the lawmakers, Schmidt asked students.
Many Kansans, he said, seek out others with similar points of view.
“You’ve essentially formed your own special interest group,” Schmidt said, that can extend its reach further than can an individual.
Special interest groups are a vital component of the legislative process, Schmidt said. “As long as you operate with good intentions, and the discussion is open, it works. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. It’s part of your First Amendment rights.”
Schmidt recalled two instances in which “regular folks” approached him about seeing laws changed.
The first occurred when a sanitation worker was killed when he was struck by a backing garbage truck. Schmidt sponsored legislation mandating “tweeter” devices that sound when large vehicles are in reverse.
In another instance, he helped pass into law a measure that makes a parent liable through negligence if he leaves a loaded firearm accessible to children without supervision.
Both were essentially common-sense measures brought forth by private citizens who felt compelled enough to see laws changed, Schmidt said.
“And it certainly made a difference.”