OverviewPetitioning the Virginia General Assembly, a group of high school students was successful in getting legislation passed that requires the use of restraint devices in vehicles for all children under four years old. This case study will assist you and your students in answering the very tough question: What do students, as citizens, need to know to participate in the decision-making process in Virginia?
There are two important parts to lawmaking: the “formal” process of making a bill into law and the “informal” process that occurs in the work of the legislators, often behind the scenes. The informal process requires research, flexibility, the support of existing interest groups, and a great deal of public outreach. It is here, in this informal process, that student and citizen participation in the decision making process of the Commonwealth has the most direct impact.
Why I Taught These Sources
A sense of efficacy and personal empowerment, according to current educational psychology, is the foundation of growth in learning experiences. It is difficult to measure the effects of the experience my students and I had in successfully getting child-restraint legislation passed in Virginia, but I believe it was a life-changing opportunity for both my students and me. The students learned about politics in the “real world.” They learned they had the talent and personal power to “change the way things are.” They learned that “government of the people and by the people” is not an abstract and antiquated concept. They learned that the ideal of participatory democracy really does work for them.
For me, the project became a means of re-committing myself to my profession and to my belief in the American political process. I again believed that individuals could change their corner of the world. And, every time I see a child strapped into a seat restraint, I am proud that we had a big role in saving the lives of our youngest Virginians—after all, the Senate had twice killed previous bills! For these reasons, I share this experience with students in my government classes as an introduction to the legislative process and the beginning of a class project of their own.
How I Introduce These Sources
I introduce students to One Teacher’s Narrative (see Resources for this Case Study on the right side of this page) after providing students with an introduction to Virginia’s formal law-making body, the General Assembly. Some key understandings that students should have before engaging this case study include organization of Virginia’s legislative bodies (the Senate and House of Delegates), the meeting times of their sessions, qualifications and membership of Delegates and Senators, committees and their organization, and particular legislation currently before the General Assembly.
Then, students analyze the text of Senate Bill No. 413 and Legislative History of SB 413. Finally, they view a short 3-minute video of the Final Approval of Senate Bill No. 413 on the floor of the House of Delegates.
Reading the Sources
Before students read One Teacher’s Narrative, I ask them to keep in mind the following questions as they read: What main steps did students take in the legislative process? What were some of the challenges they overcame in their effort? What were some of the keys to their success? I ask them to write notes in the margin and underline or highlight key passages that address these questions. This facilitates our discussion following their reading. I then list their responses, on the board, under the following columns: main steps, challenges, and keys to success. We further discuss ways to overcome the challenges inherent to the legislative process.
Then, students analyze Senate Bill No. 413. We discuss the text of the legislation as it was communicated to the House of Delegates on February 18 (after passing the Senate). Ask students to note the changes made to the text of the bill by the Senate. The bracketed text shows additions to the bill, removed text has a line through it. Why would specific additions or deletions be made to the text of the bill?
Next, students are introduced to the Legislative History of SB 413 that outlines the changes to the bill throughout the entire legislative session, until its approval by the Governor. I ask students to make actual pen and ink changes to their copy of Senate Bill No. 413 with the changes indicated after “House Amendment Agreed to by House and Senate” in the Legislative History of SB 413. We discuss their thoughts on why this text of the bill was further changed. In addition, I ask students to look at the last page of the Legislative History of SB 413 and we engage in discussion on the chronology of the bill. What does the timeline reveal to students about the process of lawmaking? What are student observations on the 10 days the bill spent in the Senate’s Committee on Transportation, the seven days the bill spent on the Senate floor, the 10 days in the House of Delegates Committee on Roads and Internal Navigation, the two days on the House floor, and the month it took to reach the Governor’s desk? What was occurring during these periods? Knowing what goes into preparing a brief to a committee, does the timeline appear slow or fast to them?
Last, students view the 3-minute video clip of Delegate Dillard’s presentation of the child-restraint bill on the House Floor. Before showing the video in class, I ask them to take notes during its presentation, identifying Mr. Dillard’s main points. Based on their notes, what do students believe may have been the reasons the bill had not passed the Senate on two previous occasions? How was this legislation likely different from legislation proposed in the past? How was persuasion used in this presentation before the House of Delegates? What is the value of parliamentary procedure? How was consensus built in the lawmaking process to ensure the new legislation’s approval by the General Assembly? How did Mr. Dillard’s presentation to the House of Delegates represent the efforts of students who lobbied for the legislation?
While this case study offers students the opportunity to peek into the legislative process at work in the Commonwealth, it also inspires them to participate in the decision-making process with lawmakers in their communities. Having students research, plan, and implement their own ideas offers a sense of efficacy and personal empowerment to each student involved in the process. Students can make a difference and networking is an essential factor in determining a bill’s outcome.
Students may choose a key issue to follow or they can identify an issue that needs a legislative solution. In either case, the students should request an interview with their local legislators to discuss the chosen issue, to request that legislation be written to address their concerns, and offer their assistance. Whether they are trying to pass a bill or trying to kill one, they can play a role. They need to determine how they can participate in the process.
A small group can establish a meeting at the legislators’ office or home or, preferably, have the legislators visit the class as part of the National Conference of State Legislatures “Back to School Program”. This is a non-political program designed to inform students about how legislators try to solve public problems. At the same time, this program gives students an opportunity to talk about their ideas with the legislators that represent them and bring civics to life. Contact local legislators directly (see this link).
More Teacher Resources for Student Involvement in the Legislative Process include:
Legislative Services of the General Assembly provides a summary of some of the key issues that the legislators will be facing in the upcoming session of the House of Delegates and the Senate. This valuable resource can be used to help students select legislation to follow and provide an opportunity for direct involvement.
Who’s My Legislator, an easy, on-line tool through which contact information for a senator or delegate can be obtained.
Lobbyist in a Box, a web-based resource that allows constituents to track up to five bills in one Lobbyist-in-a-Box “profile” without charge.
The Capitol Classroom section of the Virginia General Assembly website provides teachers, students, and citizens the opportunity to discover Virginia’s legislature through information pages, puzzles, games, and activities.
Educational materials geared towards understanding the legislative process are available for elementary through high school age students. Publications are easily accessible via the Virginia General Assembly Web site.
The House of Delegates Legislative Education and Development Office and Senate Legislative Information Office have compiled program information and guidelines for teachers bringing their students to the Capitol. See their website, just for teachers, here.
The Virginia General Assembly has also released the Virtual Tours at the Virginia State Capitol interactive website that navigates the past, present, and future of the Virginia State Capitol and Capitol Grounds through online tours, interactive maps, educational videos, and audio with correlation to the Virginia History and Social Science Standards of Learning.