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  Workshop 3: Public Policy & the Federal Budget  
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Workshop 3

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Teacher Perspectives: What students learned

Leslie Martin: This lesson achieved my objectives and more. The kids learned not only the importance of participating but [also of] gathering other people’s thoughts and ideas, and how they help to broaden your perspective. I loved it when you could see two or three members of the group building on each other’s ideas as well as correcting each other. I actually wrote down in my notes how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and how they really worked together, not just within the small groups but in the group as a whole. I think that if we had gone back and spent two or three more days, we really could have had some neat concepts of what we wanted to happen and also been more persuasive politically.

I think that they really got a feel for the dynamic between the President and Congress, [and] the adversarial nature of the budget process. We’ve talked about how long it takes to make a law and why it is so important that it takes so long--because you have to get every single person’s opinion to adjust it and make sure that it’s a good law. Even with this budget process, they have seen why it takes so long.

One group was actually looking at the income side and the spending side. They [asked], “Where does the money come from and how do we have to pay that out?” [Another group ended] up talking about energy standards from a conservative and a liberal perspective. They actually said to me, “I think that we are just about one second off of compromise.” I was really pleased. Another group ended up talking about an NPR [segment] on the Crusader that [they] had heard this morning [and why] we need weapons. [They] even talked about the situation where [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld was not in favor of the Crusader but the guys underneath him were and how the guys below him had gotten the Senators on board [in the state] where the Crusader was made. They attached “pork barrel” to the discussion, so it actually built on what they had [studied] before. The interactions were all different, but they seemed to be on task in every single group.

Probably the most critical piece was the way the conversations diverged from budgeting to priorities and policy. When [one of the students said], “We can’t make a budget if we don’t know what our policies are,” that was an “aha” for him and for me--to recognize how important it is to say, “This is what I want to do, but how am I going to make it happen and where do I have authority?” The second piece of that “aha” was the realization that the budget won’t work without the involvement of Congress.

I thought it was funny when [one student used] what we call a political answer (e.g., “That’s an excellent question. Let’s move on.”) because we do talk about how you can respond without answering the question. We had people for more education, better benefits, lower taxes, and peace at home. Who can be against any of that? But the specifics are what really make or break it.

My original objective in having them create a budget from scratch and then revise it was to force the kids to see that you don’t live in a perfect world. There are constraints. That they didn’t like having to revise their budget really proves a point that you have to live within constraints. Would I change that? Probably not, because I think that the recognition that you have to deal with all those issues and that you really only have a little bit of leeway, while frustrating, is what you have to deal with. I didn’t point it out, but next time they hear what the President or Congress is going to do, they’re going to have to say, “Well they are going to try, but how much can they actually accomplish?”


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