Students learn about government through Model Legislature

Published 10:10 am Saturday, November 24, 2018

Austin High School students learned the art of compromise through Model Legislature at Winona State University earlier this month.

For 50 years, the Winona Model Legislature has allowed middle, high school and college students to gain a deeper understanding of Minnesota’s legislative process firsthand and is also the oldest program of its kind in the United States. There, students interact with other peers from different districts to learn how to pass bills, determine which programs get surplus funding and reach across the aisle to get things done.

Thomas Heimer

Austin High School has been sending students to Model Legislature for four years and is open to all government students to who want to spend two days at Winona State and participate in this hands-on experience. Local state representatives like Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL – District 27B) and Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr. (DFL – District 28A) were also present to observe the proceedings of Model Legislature.

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“We’re teaching students how government operates and what they can achieve when they compromise,” said Rayce Hardy, an Austin High School government and economics teacher and an organizer for Model Legislature. “By other accounts, politics have become so divisive, and much more of it’s because of the lack of compromise that’s happening now. Everything about this is 100 percent student-led.”

Five students had the opportunity to go to Winona State for two days to participate in various sessions, which is operated in almost the exact format as the state Legislature. There were Winona State University political science majors helping run the Model Legislature by acting out as senators or representatives. Several area middle school students served as pages to run bills down to different committees for discussion.

Owen Culbert

“I didn’t know what Model Legislature was until I got there,” said Owen Culbert, an AHS senior. “It turned out to be pretty fun.”

Students also elected their governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and more. For Austin High School students, they got a close look at how the state Legislature operates by taking roles as different senators and representatives.

The hope is that in 2020 Austin could host a Model Legislature, similar to the one that students had a chance to experience at Winona State, according to Hardy. Those in neighboring counties such as Dodge, Steele, Freeborn and Fillmore would be able to come to a Model Legislature that’s closer in distance and could take place at a site like Riverland Community College.

“Superintendent David Krenz has been extremely supportive, as well as others in the district, of us participating in Model Legislature,” Hardy said. “The vision is to see this happen in Austin.”

Within a two-day session, students would be appointed to committees, and were instructed to research actual bills that are currently being worked on at the state level. Ranging from education to taxes to transportation, each student needed to research a bill that they would present to the floor for discussion. There, students could possibly see their bills pass into law, or fail, causing for students to work together and make amendments to their bill.

Dongrin Deng

That was what AHS senior Dongrin Deng experienced while working on presenting his bill to fellow peers. He was met with some support, making it easier to pass.

“I had a bill that most people could support,” Deng said. “It was to allow high school students to work their part-time jobs by expanding the hours they’re allowed to work. It was interesting seeing it pass and to see the bill keep going until it doesn’t.”

Having an experience like Model Legislature, students felt that they could see more into why certain bills may take longer to pass than others. However, they also noted that by compromising, politicians could avoid complete gridlock and be able to work with one another, just like these high school students were able to do.

“I went because I didn’t know much about politics,” said Thomas Heimer, an AHS senior. “I wanted to learn more about diplomacy and how people create laws. I didn’t realize how long it can take a whole committee to get something done. In that bit of a time crunch, that’s why things don’t get done right away.”