Tomorrow's Leaders Examine Today's Issues
By Jessica Kitchin, Special to Stateline
School's out for the summer and while many students are taking it easy, thousands of others are taking on the concerns of their country for a week.
Most of them aren't old enough to vote, but that doesn't stop delegates at Boys State and Girls State from jumping into the democratic process. Selected students, who represent the next generation of America's leaders, spend a week on college campuses, in state capitals or at camps learning about the inner workings of state legislatures.
The experience often includes running for office in a model legislature and helping write mock laws.
"I have a whole new appreciation for the people in office. By creating and debating bills, I realized how long and hard a process it really is." said Asa Angel, 17, who was elected state senator at Ohio Girls State. She was among more than 900 young women who gathered at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, June 13-19.
The Galloway, Ohio, teen said people expect a lot from government, but it's much more difficult to get legislation through than most think.
This year, student legislation considered at Boys or Girls State convocations has included lowering the drinking age, investing in wind energy, banning breast implants, and most often, reforming education. While many real state legislatures have been wrestling with education costs and the new requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the student pols were figuring out how to fix things.
"The focus for us was purely education," Matt LeBeau, 16, who attended Connecticut Boys State at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, Conn., told Stateline.org.
LeBeau, of East Hartford, Conn., came into the program already knowing a lot about state government because his father is a Connecticut state senator.
"I didn't mention my dad to people. I wanted use it as an opportunity to make a name for myself," LeBeau said.
Bill Clinton, Tom Brokaw, Jane Pauley and Michael Jordan all took part in Boys State and Girls State programs, which are sponsored by American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary.
The programs involve anywhere from 20 to nearly 1,000 high school students per state. Hawaii is the only state that doesn't participate.
Representatives from each state are chosen to attend Boys Nation and Girls Nation in Washington, D.C., at the end of July.
"By simply being here, you have demonstrated a keen interest in government and an ability to engage the political process," Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) of Tennessee told his state's Boys State and Girls State delegates this year.
Proposals offered at the gatherings have ranged from the legalization of casino gambling in Nebraska to constitutional reform in Alabama.
Alaska, North Carolina and South Dakota Girls State and Tennessee Boys State put together environmental bills calling for fuel recovery sleeves at gas pumps, protection of natural resources and investment in wind energy.
Abortion legislation was debated by Colorado and Texas Boys State and South Dakota Girls State. Other hot topics included same-sex marriage, lowering the drinking age, legislator accountability, voter apathy, earlier ages for driving permits, lower blood alcohol limits for drunk drivers and tougher penalties for sex offenders.
Dewayne Thomas, who was elected "governor" of Oklahoma Boys State, had to examine hundreds of bills and look for ways to cut deals and create compromise. The 18-year-old from Oklahoma City ran on a platform of attracting business to his state.
"We have so much space, so many vast resources. I don't understand why we don't have a stronger economy here," he said.
The North Carolina Girls State program approved a lottery to raise money for schools, and Texas Boys State passed a bill that would levy a 2 percent sales tax on movie and play tickets, with revenues going toward education.
Eliminating exit exams was also a priority. In Alaska and Colorado Girls States, delegates sought to remove standardized tests. Kentucky Girls State eliminated the "catch test," which requires that students improve on a standardized test each year.
Beverly Burns, Secretary of the Rhode Island's American Legion Auxiliary, said she was impressed with the diversity of the Girls State delegates and how much they learned from each other, and Tennessee Boys State Chairman John Maddux said he expects big things from the delegates who come through the program.
Angel was encouraged by her experience at Ohio Girls State.
"I'm so glad to see that there are other people out there who have a passion for government and want to take an active role," she said. "It gave me hope, because it sometimes seems like almost no one cares anymore. Seeing nearly a thousand girls there really made a difference."