Seniors at Burnsville High School get a real-world look at how bills become law by visiting the Capitol and meeting with legislators.
Burnsville High School students gave a thumbs-up along with Rep. Erin Murphy, center, after they discussed a bill in her office on Tuesday. Students had the assignment of researching a bill and then going to the Capitol and State Office Building to meet with the authors of the bill to discuss it.
In between bites of a breakfast bar, Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, chatted with a group of Burnsville High School seniors about a House bill she introduced last month to fund universal preschool for 4-year-olds in Minnesota.
Murphy authored the bill because as a mom and a nurse, she’s concerned about the achievement gap and thinks funding preschool for all is a way to “get students to reach their full potential,” she said.
Having studied the idea of universal preschool, the dozen teens gathered in her office had plenty of questions: How would the program be funded? Could requiring more kids to attend preschool actually diminish their creativity?
“Do you think we should do it?” Murphy asked. “Who disagrees? And it’s OK, this is a place we can disagree.”
Murphy said that while she often meets with students, she hadn’t experienced this scenario before, with students examining a bill and then visiting to ask her more about it.
For 320 students in American government and public affairs classes at Burnsville High School, the annual Capitol visit is one part of an assignment to thoroughly research a current bill and develop an opinion on whether it should become law. The assignment and visit have been going on for 20 years now, said Colleen Coleman, a government teacher.
But the larger goal is making civics and the political process come to life, she said.
“I think … how a bill becomes a law is kind of what they’re trying to learn, but then what’s great about this project is they learn about so many other things,” Coleman said.
Students end up exploring a wide range of topics such as special interest groups, companion bills and federalism, she said.
Most students are excited to get out of the high school, and “a lot of them are really by this point interested in the topics they have been researching so much,” she said.
While some students had been on previous field trips to the Capitol, others had never been there.
On Tuesday, other student groups visited legislators to talk about their chosen bills, from the minimum wage measure and the antibullying bill to legislation that would prohibit teens under 18 from using tanning beds.
Sangeetha Shreedaran, who’s interested in pursuing a political science major, said she was interested in the preschool bill because her mom is a Montessori teacher. “I wanted to choose it because I went to preschool and I felt like it helped me a lot,” she said. “I feel like it would be very beneficial to Minnesota.”
“I think it’s cool to have a hands-on experience and get to come here and experience it, rather than just reading about it in a book,” said Brooke Bernhagen, who serves on student council with Shreedaran.
Another student, Khalid Abdi, said he was impressed by the meeting with Murphy, who “answered our questions and told us even more than we wanted to know.”
Engaging future voters
In addition to scheduling meetings with the authors of their bills, some students also had the chance to meet with one of their representatives or senators from the Burnsville area.
Rep. Will Morgan, DFL-Burnsville, gave an overview of several bills, including the medical marijuana bill and the minimum wage bill. Morgan also happens to teach physics at Burnsville High School in the fall, so some students knew him, Coleman said.